Saturday, November 21, 2015

Falling From Grace

The curious thing about credibility is that it takes years of hard work to earn and mere moments to destroy. Once idolized by their followers, celebrities like Josh Duggar and Jared Fogle have recently experienced a sudden and precipitous loss of face which not only deprived them of future income but, in Fogle's case, sent him to jail.

Child molestation has long been a crime in America. But when some holier-than-thou representative of Christian family values is revealed to have been molesting his younger sisters and their friends, even the true believers are appalled. How ironic, then, that those who openly celebrate the pleasure they derive from sex between consenting adults should be chastised for the simple fact that they are enjoying life.

Two new plays recently allowed Bay area audiences the chance to witness the sorry spectacle of two successful men crashing and burning. Each had been a highly respected member of his profession until some inconvenient facts about him begin to surface.

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Fifty years ago (on November 13, 1965), a new musical starring Julie Harris opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. The show's quirky heroine, Georgina, was a fantasy-prone antiques dealer struggling to save her brownstone from being demolished in order to make way for a new skyscraper in mid-Manhattan. Although it ran for 248 performances, Skyscraper was a weak show, barely remembered today for one song: "Everybody Has The Right To Be Wrong."

While the starchitect in Skyscraper was portrayed by Peter Marshall (the original host of The Hollywood Squares), the starchitect in Amy Freed's brutal contemporary comedy, Monster Builder, is being enacted by Bay area favorite, Danny Scheie (an actor who knows how to meld lust, larceny, and egomania into a felonious farce built around a dastardly and demonic centuries-old secret).

Sierra Jolene (Tamsin) and Danny Scheie (Gregor) in a
scene from Monster Builder (Photo by: David Allen)

The daughter of an architect, Freed (who is a professor in Stanford University's Department of Theatre) is all too familiar with the kind of insufferable egotism and ruthless ambition necessary for architects to land exorbitant commissions for projects that may be more eye-catching than functional.
  • In Monster Builder, her heroes are a husband and wife team of idealistic young architects who are competing for a contract to renovate a public boathouse which, despite its landmark status, has fallen into total disrepair. Their goal is to restore it to its original beauty.
  • Freed's villain, Gregor Zubrowski (Danny Scheie) is the kind of raging asshole who prides himself on designing intimate projects (like a glass-walled beach house where everyone on the outside can watch everything happening on the inside) as well as the imposing Tower of Justice and Interrogation in Abu Dhabi. Gregor does not hesitate to tell the young Rita that "I not only have a seat at the table, I built the table!"
  • Zubrowski's nemesis is an amiable construction magnate named Andy, who spent an entire year living like a bum, surviving on coffee and crullers, until he came up with a brilliant and highly lucrative idea: building condominium complexes for status-hungry clients who crave the pretense of living in mammoth faux-Swiss chalets and pseudo-Venetian castles with names like "Versailles Acres."
Rita (Tracy Hazas) meets wealthy new clients Pamela (Nancy Carlin)
and her husband, Andy (Rod Gnapp). in a scene from Monster Builder
(Photo by: David Allen)

In an age when post-modern glass and steel buildings rule the urban landscape and the hubris of popular starchitects like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid is reflected in trophy buildings that anchor a culture of expediency and greed, it's often hard for idealistic architects with a sense of integrity to develop a following. Perhaps that's why Rita (Tracy Hazas) and her husband, Dieter (Thomas Gorrebeeck), named their firm Third Place (which starchitect Zubrowski wastes no time in referring to as Third Rate).

Thomas Gorrebeeck (Dieter) and Tracy Hazas (Rita) in
a scene from Monster Builder (Photo by: David Allen)

As someone who lives near Ocean Beach in San Francisco, Freed was horrified with the design for the new De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. As she explains:
"Architects are kind of the set designers the stagers, of human life. I'm in a tiny theatre department, surrounded by the hyper-ventilating entrepreneurial class, and they're all five years old. They don't have experience with the impacts of ideas. They don't take history and they haven't heard of World War II. It's shocking how little humanities context or historical context seems to be curated anymore for our next generation. Theatre is a diminishing iceberg, trying to stimulate thought and talk.

There's a trend in theatre building to do huge signature buildings, and the theaters are stuck with the cost of maintaining these institutions. If you look at the money that's going to the building versus the money that's going to the art-making (or if you look at the money that's going to the university's signature building while they're cutting adjunct faculty), it's monstrous. It's much bigger than architecture: it's a consolidation of wealth and ego."
Tracy Hazas (Rita) and Danny Scheie (Gregor) in a
scene from Monster Builder (Photo by: David Allen)

The Aurora Theatre Company is currently presenting the Bay area premiere of Monster Builder under the crisp direction of Art Manke (who staged the play's 2014 world premiere at the Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Oregon. While Freed's play is partially inspired by Henrik Ibsen's 1892 drama, The Master Builder, it neatly captures today's culture of celebrity worship (especially among the nouveau riche), a fascination with architectural "statements" that are often shockingly ugly, the bloodlust of professional rivals (who can't stand to see anyone land a commission they didn't turn down), and the serendipitous events that can take down a preening narcissist and rob him of his power over others.

Freed's play contains many architectural references which might go over the heads of some audience members (I particularly loved the way Danny Scheie spat out "arts and crafts"), but her comedy writing is strong and slices to the quick. At one point, Pamela (Nancy Carlin) recognizes Zubrowski's name as the architect who built the healthcare facility that quickly sent her mother's frail condition into a tailspin (what kind of person would design the cafeteria for a dementia unit in the form of a maze?) and bemoans the memory of patients struggling to return to their tables from the salad bar.

While strong performances come from Rod Gnapp as the construction magnate, Nancy Carlin as his wife, Thomas Gorrebeeck as Dieter, and Sierra Jolene as Tasmin (Gregor's mistress), the evening's top honors go to Tracy Hazas as the easily manipulated Rita and Danny Scheie as the evil starchitect, Gregor. Kudos to Tom Buderwitz for a maliciously modern and efficiently evil unit set as well as to Rodolfo Ortega for his excellent sound design.

Thomas Gorrebeeck (Dieter), Tracy Hazas (Rita), and Sierra Jolen
(Tamsin) in a scene from Monster Builder (Photo by: David Allen)

Performances of Monster Builder continue at the Aurora Theatre Company in downtown Berkeley through December 13 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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Sometimes current events affect one's daily life in the strangest manner. The opening night of the West Coast premiere of Disgraced (a Berkeley Repertory Theatre co-production with the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the Seattle Repertory Theatre) took place hours after the news hit about November's horrifying terrorist attacks in Paris. During the curtain call, the cast held hands as they bowed their heads in a moment of silence.

The eruption of American Islamophobia that has dominated the headlines since November 14 becomes all the more painful in light of Ayad Akhtar's searing dramedy (which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama). In Disgraced, the audience witnesses the downfall of a successful Manhattan mergers and acquisitions attorney who, against his better judgment, attends a hearing at the urging of his nephew, Abe (Behzad Dabu). The subject of the hearing is a local Imam who has been arrested on suspicions of helping to finance groups that support terrorism. In the tensions following the 9/11 attacks, Abe thinks the Imam is being framed with trumped-up charges.

Bernard White (Amir), Nisi Sturgis (Emily) and Behzad Dabu
(Abe) in a scene from Disgraced (Photo by: Liz Lauren)

When the judge asks Amir (Bernard White) a question (even though he is not representing the Imam), a reporter's story in The New York Times identifies Amir Kapoor as the only Muslim attorney in the courtroom. That's how rumors get started -- a technique Rossini masterfully mocked in his 1816 masterpiece, The Barber of Seville.

Whereas Rossini's opera is a comic romp, Akhtar's play is very much a tragedy. Amir has been working long and hard at a law firm where, despite his loyalty, he has not been promoted in two years. Meanwhile, his wife's art (which has been focused on patterns and traditions found in Islamic culture), is on the brink of being chosen as part of an exhibition at a gallery run by Amir's friend, Isaac (J. Anthony Crane). Coincidentally, Isaac's African-American wife, Jory (Zakiya Young) is a lawyer at the same firm where Amir works.

Several days later, with tensions mounting after the hearing, Isaac and Jory arrive for dinner with Amir and Emily (Nisi Sturgis) at their apartment. The timing could not be worse.
  • Amir (who was traumatized during childhood by his mother's horrible anti-semitic behavior toward a girl he had a crush on) has had a horrible day at work and forgotten to purchase the wine for their dinner party. 
  • Isaac (who is trying to stick to a gluten-free diet) has a wonderful surprise for Emily.
  • Jory (who may well be the most observant person in the room) has an important announcement of her own.
Bernard White (Amir), Nisi Sturgis (Emily), Zakiya Young (Jory),
and J. Anthony Crane (Isaac) in a scene from Disgraced
(Photo by: Liz Lauren)

Dinner is quickly ruined with a mention of the reporter's story about Amir. As the pressure starts to mount, Amir reveals that as he reached maturity (and in the wake of post-9/11 Islamophobia), he chose to keep quiet about his religious affiliation in order to climb the corporate ladder. Amir is the only person at the dinner party with a solid knowledge of Islamic culture -- both the good and the bad parts of it. He is acutely and painfully aware of the lessons Muslim children learn early in life (they're not all pretty).

One fact which has easily confused people is his family's heritage. Amir's grandmother was pregnant when the British agreed to the partitioning of India in 1947. As a result, he has always listed his mother as being from India (which would make most people assume that his family is Hindu) although, thanks to a political technicality, Amir's mother grew up in Pakistan (a Muslim nation). As Amir (who was born in America) moved up the ladder toward achieving success "American-style," he was forced to hide his identity as a lapsed Muslim. While he admires his wife's artistic talent, he doubts that Emily has any real idea of the more brutal realities of Muslim culture.

Bernard White (Amir) and Nisi Sturgis (Emily) in
a scene from Disgraced (Photo by: Liz Lauren)

In the following 38-minute clip, Aasif Mandvi (who played Amir in the LCT3 production at Lincoln Center) moderates a discussion with the playwright, Ayad Akhtar, and actor Josh Radnor (who played Isaac in the Broadway production of Disgraced). It's worth watching not only for each man's take on the play's characters, but especially for the playwright's explanation of how he made numerous changes in the script and how long it took for him to really understand what his play was saying.

Working John Lee Beatty's handsome unit set, Kimberly Senior has directed Disgraced with the mounting tensions of a pressure cooker as the life Amir worked so hard to build for himself starts to disintegrate before his very eyes. This is a riveting piece of theatre for a brave new audience capable of dealing with well-intentioned liberals, rampant Islamophobia, marital infidelity, racial profiling, and the devastating results of trying to deny who you are and where you came from.

While Disgraced has a classic tragic protagonist with a Shakespearean flaw, it's important to remember that Amir can be a real asshole. After his nephew tells him about being hauled in for questioning by the FBI, Amir never even bothers to ask Abe the most basic legal question: "Did you ask to speak to an attorney?"

Akhtar's drama delivers the kind of theatrical experience that will leave some audiences emotionally drained and inspire others to talk about the kind of Islamophobia that Americans proudly display on a daily basis. Performances of Disgraced continue at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through December 20 (click here to order tickets). Tthis production is not to be missed. Here's the trailer:

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