Yakking About Architecture

15. February, 2012 Theater No comments

American Conservatory Theater doesn’t do new plays all the time, but it likes to throw the occasional world premiere into the mix from time to time. Last season there was the musical Tales of the City; a year before that was The Tosca Project; the previous year was War Music; a couple years before that there was After the War. This season the company’s also presenting a world premiere, but not on its main stage on Geary Street. This one’s tucked away at the space formerly known as Zeum, now rebranded the Theater at Children’s Creativity Museum, and it’s by ACT’s own artistic director, Carey Perloff.

René Augesen and Alexander Crowther in Higher. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Higher is about two American architects competing against each other to design a memorial to bus bombing victims on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. The two architects are lovers, and they have no idea that each other are working on the project at all, nor do the organizers of the competition know that the two even know each other. Elena Constantine is a young architect who’s hungry for the job, feels passionate about it and is obsessed with getting it right. Michael Friedman is a much more established architect who’s done a lot of memorials and turns the job down outright before being wooed by a committee member into trying his hand at it.

Associate artistic director Mark Rucker’s staging keeps things on the simple side, which is appropriate for the play is not terribly dynamic. Erik Flatmo’s set suggests a very modern architectural office, with tall diaphanous glass walls and a diamond-shaped hole in the floor with soil showing through.

ACT’s usual leading lady René Augesen is well cast in this one. She carries a nice balance of passion and poise as Elena, who wants very badly to get things right. Andrew Polk’s brash arrogance as Michael makes all his argumentativeness sound childish, with sudden shifts of attitude that don’t ring true. In fact, the men in the play in general come off as emotionally stunted, peevish and juvenile.

Concetta Tomei deftly navigates between aristocratic flightiness and mature self-possession as a chatty and very wealthy donor whose husband was killed, even if her big scene toward the end is pretty melodramatic. Alexander Crowther has a compelling low-key earnestness as Jacob, a young Israeli hunk (and memorial committee member) whose father died in the bus bombing, even if his thick accent and soulful inscrutability is reminiscent of your average travelogue teacher/love interest. A potentially interesting point he brings up about appropriation of others’ pain is unfortunately couched in a tantrum over romantic rejection that automatically invalidates anything he has to say.

Crowther’s fellow ACT MFA student Ben Kahre has a bit less to work with as Michael’s son Isaac, a gay and devoutly Jewish pastry chef who resents his father for neglecting him. He might seem like a down-to-earth, grounded character if he weren’t defined entirely by his bitterness toward his dad.  It’s not altogether clear why he’s in the play at all except as a nudge to the conscience, which is to say a nag, and it doesn’t matter that you’re sure Isaac must be right because Michael’s not the kind of guy whose side you want to take.

“Talky” isn’t a very useful criticism for a play because they do tend to involve a lot of talking, but it’s certainly true that Higher could do with a little less conversation, a little more action. Some of the banter feels puzzlingly irrelevant, such as an extended riff on the trendy glasses architects tend to wear and weird asides about dining on “foam.” There are a number of witty lines in the play (“A landscape architect who does wheat is called a farmer, Elana”), but there’s an awkward didacticism in the lovers’ debates about architecture that can take the viewer out of the scene. Jacob makes such a big deal about the necessity of running your hands through the dirt that it seems strange and conspicuous that the otherwise diligent Elena declines, while the much less emotionally invested Michael does it without thinking about it. It’s the kind of detail that feels like it should be significant but somehow isn’t.

Israel conjures any number of resonances and issues for any number of people that are alluded to here without quite touching on them. The site is unspeakably beautiful and sacred to a lot of people, and that’s all you need to know. While there’s something refreshing about watching a play set in the Holy Land that doesn’t get bogged down in the politics, there’s something unsatisfying about its thorniness being reduced to a few quips about how everything is impossible there.

On opening night an older couple next to me was very pointedly laughing at nearly every line, whether or not it seemed intended to be comedic. They were also very concerned about the fact that hardly anyone else seemed to be laughing. “No one’s laughing!” the woman said quite audibly to the man. “They’re not paying attention!” But no, I’m quite sure that wasn’t the problem.

Through February 25
The Theater at Children’s Creativity Museum
221 Fourth St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #15 of 2012, attended February 4.

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