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A CurtainUp Review
The Glass House
By Elyse Sommer
The play revolves around the well documented controversial history of The Farnsworth House, a legendary private residence constructed entirely of glass by Chicago architect Mies van der Rohe as a weekend retreat for a medical research doctor named Edith Farnsworth. As Ms. Finfer tells it, the facts explode into a drama that reveals how the vision for a house as both a work of art and a home can inspire all the passion of a love affair. In fact, during the years it took for the glass house to move from concept to construction, it did evolve into a more intimate relationship between Mies, a man of considerable personal magnetism, and Edith, an attractive woman whose long dormant romantic instincts were awakened as she her dream of an artistic and unusual retreat took shape. This romance struck me as a case of dramatic license to heighten the drama but a query brought assurance that this was not a fiction but based on careful research and interviews with people who knew Farnsworth. Naturally, the playwright did use her imagination to flesh out this not so well know personal aspect of the Mies-Edith relationship..
Of course, you need actors who can give believable life to Mies and Edith. Harris Yulin and Janet Zarish are just what the playwright must have envisioned.
Though Yulin is older than the part calls for (Mies was 59 when he undertook the Farnsworth commission) he's got the acting chops and charisma to make his appeal to the 42-year-old Farnsworth convincing. He's not only got the German accent down pat (Mies came to America when the Nazis banished the Bauhaus movement), but the world weariness of the man who has to start over as well as the laid-back self-confidence and ego for which successful architects are as renowned as the buildings they leave behind.
Zarish is the picture of an independent, strong-minded woman who is smitten not only with the idea of the unique glass house designed just for her but with the designer. She manages to portray a woman falling deeply and possessively in love, yet never quite climbing out of her shell of reserve, literally never letting her carefully groomed hair down.
The play's main plot arc follows the journey of Mies and Edith from bonding over what seems a shared vision, to the intimacy that contributes to the final blow-up. Their "lover's spats" revolve around clashes over the house that is the real love object of each. There's a degree of give and take over such banal necessities as a closet. He provides the closet, she foregoes the screen for the terrace even though mosquitos are rife in wooded areas like this.
Besides occasional brief fourth wall breaking ruminations by Mies on architecture's purpose, there's also a subtext to turn the affair into a triangle. This involves artist Lora Marx (Gina Nagy Burns making the most of a small but crucial role) who separates from Mies just as he meets Edith, not because she doesn't love him but because his demands on her time keep her from doing her own work. This may again seem like authorial diddling with history, but except for a brief separation, Marx actually was van der Rohe's lifetime girlfriend and did not object to an open relationship.
An important fourth character, Philip Johnson (David Bishins), adds yet another complex element to the Farnsworth House story. His presence sheds light on the way men like him and Mies can admire each other and yet clash because of different values. Johnson not only admired Mies but in the late 1930s helped to bring him as well as other architects sidelined by the Nazis to this country. As founder and curator of the Museum of Modern Art's architectural department he gave Mies a valuable solo show and was responsible for his obtaining the Seagram building commission.
But Johnson's admiration and friendship does not preclude competitiveness; to wit, he borrowed the glass house concept to not only build his own glass house but, to beat Mies to the finish line. He agrees with Mies that architecture is not a race, but argues that "the first is the first, and mine will be the first."Yet, when Edith tries to enlist him to persuade Mies to satisfy her needs, Johnson sides with his colleague, telling her "When you hire a great artist, you're supposed to be thrilled with whatever you get. Would you tell Rothko how to paint?" (When the play was still in its embryonic stage, a 2007 piece by Paul Goldberger in The New Yorker, quoted this line but with Picasso the artist named. Obviously, the Rothko reference is more timely given the popularity of the current Broadway hit ( Red) that focuses on Rothko while he was preparing a series of murals for the Seagram Building.
To go back to my opening quibble about the over fussy staging. It is especially wrong headed given that the less-is-more mantra Mies was known for is at the heart of this drama and the downward trajectory of a working and personal relationship that started out so full of joy and promise.
Scenic desiger Jo Winiarski's division of the stage into two levels is fine and the suggestion of the almost finished house on the upper level is actually quite well done. What's so unnecessary and distracting is the constant between scenes shift of the few tables and chairs. None of these props have any distinctive character and the changing locale could just as easily have been achieved if the projections now used to announce the shift in time, were also used to announce the various locations. As it is, the prop movers' pointless appearances add 15-minutes to an otherwise engagingly written and acted 90minute play.
As part of its mission to pair similarly theme classic and new plays, Resonance Ensemble is presnting The Glass House in repertory with the granddaddy of plays about architects,The Master Builder. What's more another new play about architecture, The Bilbao Effect has also just opened in a site specific location, the Center for Architecture. This middle play of a trilogy about architecture by Oren Safdie is an absurdist contemporary fiction concocted as a means to examine the practice of cities hiring famous architects to create work that would boost their tourist business, as Frank Gehry's Guggneheim Museum did the poor city of Bilbao, Spain. (Review. With tickets at both venues just $18, why not see both?
Both the Farnsworth glass house outside Chicago and Philip Johnson's New Canaan Glass house havb become National Trust Treasures. Pictures and tour information available at www.farnsworthhouse.org and www.philipjohnsonglasshouse.org.