nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
January 9, 2009
THREE HOURS! That's 30 minutes more than the program promised, and an hour and a half longer than it should have been. Architecting, one of the offerings of The Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival, hovers in and around the cerebral while cashing in on pop culture with enough humor to keep most of the audience in their seats—but not all. The TEAM, the creators, could have solved this problem simply by sharpening (and using) a red pencil.
An architect, Carey Campbell, takes her first trip south of the Mason-Dixon line to construct homes in the area devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Her vision of a new American community triggers strong reactions of nostalgia from the residents. Using a dog-eared copy of Gone With the Wind, the Southerners re-enact lines and scenes that sum up hilarious images of Atlanta during the Civil War, Tara, plantation life, hoop skirts, and corsets whose long laces reduce waists to 17"—all this while Margaret Mitchell is composing her tome and Hollywood is busily revising it for the movie. Says the film director, "Let's shoot this in New Orleans, we've already got the rubble."
The tension between Carey's architectural ideal, physically represented on stage by a cardboard miniature of Chartres Cathedral that is being glued together as we watch, and the strong will of the residents (they don't want her low income housing, however perfect; they want what they had) plays out in a combination of stream of consciousness, casual digressions and readings, strenuous physical exercise, and thoughtful symbolism. Chartres Cathedral, struck by lightning, burnt to the ground and was rebuilt by those who used it. Using history as a template, Carey tries to adapt her design. She ponders, "It's like they're still fighting a war down here." Then asks, "Is this a love story or a war story?" To which Margaret Mitchell responds, "It's a very, very long book." There are many funny moments such as this. And, the message, pitting need for housing against nostalgia for their homes, explores the concept of recovery from devastation, whether it be war or natural disaster. The architect concludes that it is most important that the building have a strong sense of identity; that, like Chartres, the project should be built by those who suffered loss. In this way, they will regain some of their identity.
Clearly, director Rachel Chavkin possesses a depth of resources from which to choose and she generously shares them in Architecting, maybe too much as illustrated by the use of video screens, which prove more distracting than illuminating. The six actors (Jessica Almasy, Frank Boyd, Jill Frutkin, Libby King, Jake Margolin, and Kristin Claire Sieh) are excellent in this loosely told tale. Architecting is a smart play that is drowning in a whirlpool of words, the collaborative effort of four people (Nathan Thomas Wright, Davey Anderson, Dave Polato, and Lucy Kendrick Smith). The fine art of editing is never lost on a good piece of writing. Even if the words are clever, even if a line is funny, they are of little use if they obscure the view or blur the focus. I had to work too hard, for too long, to figure out what this play was about.
Nick Vaughn's costumes and sets are inventive. Jake Heinrichs and Matt Hubbs designed effective lighting and sound, respectively. Architecting was created with support from the National Theater of Scotland.