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The Bilbao Effect
The title is a term used for a practice that became common after Frank Gehry built the Guggenheim Museum in the poor industrial port city of Bilbao, Spain. The museum subsequently became such a popular tourist destination that it prompted other struggling cities to cast about for celebrity architects who could design equally alluring buildings to boost their economies.
The American Institute of Architects (AIA) an apt site specific setting for Safdie's use of a mock trial as his basic theatrical conceit. We meet the Clerk (Tommy Biggiani), Judge Bill Watertsand (Marc Carver), prosecuting attorney Mitsumi Yoshida (Ann Hu), defense attorney Allen Kaufman (John Bolton), plaintiff Dr. Paul Bolzano (Anthony Giaimo), starchitect Erhardt Shlaminger (Joris Stuyck), and a renowned architectural critic Alexandre Nusinovitski (Joel Van Liew).
Consider this hearing as a mating of the American legal court system with the AIA protocol, and to add a bot of democratic flavor, the audience is invited to be the stand-in jury. Oh, and expect this court to allow all manner of detours into absurdism.
While the trial is a comic device, Safdie's is also bent on exploring the serious theme of the glamourizing of architecture so that urban planning involves a search for what's come to be known as "Starchitects" whose names attached to mega urban centers can be compared to the way Hollywood A-list actors are secured to insure film financing.
Some scenes possess a dark Kafka-esque atmosphere. For instance, there is a mysterious entrance of Shlaminger's mother Ettie Hillman-Shlaminger (Lorraine Serabian) from the back of the theater. And when the defense attorney calls her as a witness, whose raison d'etre seems to be in providing off-beat anecdotes about her son's precocious childhood. Another late witness is the posh Belgian avant-garde furniture designer Grole Andacht (Jay Sullivan). There's so much frantic energy in this play that one can easily lose track of the storyline.
The acting is broad, as is Brendan Hughes's direction. If I were pressed to pick the star turn of the evening, the honor would go to Ann Hu as prosecuting attorney Mitsumi Yoshida. She's entertainingly tenacious and not quite the cool lawyer she appears to be.
Architecture aficionados will enjoy Shlaminger's slide show of great contemporary buildings and his insider's facts and funny stories about these iconic urban centres. To wit: the Sydney Opera House ran 1, 400 percent over budget,and it leaked like a sieve.
There's no question that the playwright knows his architecture. As the son of the famous architect Moshe Safdie, he grew up in Montreal in Habitat '67, one of his father's signature building complexes. He later studied architecture at Columbia University, but took a different career path after taking a playwriting class.
The Bilbao Effecthas character as well as thematic links to Private Jokes, Public Places, but you don't need to have seen the first play to catch on to the theconnection. Each play is structured to stand independently. It's the somewhat uneasy mix of thought provoking issues and off-the-wall comedy that tends to point to structural weaknesses. But then weren't all those starchtects competing to memorialize the World Trade Center tragedy a sad and absurd spectacle?
Editor's Note: This is certainly a season with new plays that put the spotlight on art and architecture. As The Bilbao Effect opened, so did a new historical drama, The Glass House about the famous Farnsworth House designed by a man who was a starchitect long before the term became popular, Mies van der Rohe. The Broadway hit Red puts the focus on an artist creating murals for van der Rohe's Seagram Building. And at New York Theater Workshop in the East Village, playwright/performer Claudia Shear looks at the restorer's art in a play called — what else— Restoration. . I'll be reviewing it later this week. To read my review of Private Jokes, Public Places when it played at this same site-specific venue go here.— elyse sommer