Piven Theatre

It’s more cinematic than theatrical to give setting a central role. Consider the films Nashville and Magnolia, or simply the bell tower in Vertigo. More than providing an environment for human encounters, the settings in these pictures largely define those encounters and even dictate the nature of their outcome. There are certainly stage settings as powerful–Carousel’s carousel comes to mind, and the estate in The Cherry Orchard–but without a huge set piece or Chekhov’s evocative descriptions, the conceit can’t work nearly as well in the theater as when a movie camera gives it motion and life.

David Auburn’s Skyscraper revolves around half a dozen people affected by the approaching demolition of a landmark building. Though Auburn’s math-inflected play Proof won a Pulitzer in 2001, the seams show in this 1997 work: it comes off as more schematic–even formulaic–than genuine, and as something of a filmic wannabe. For one thing Auburn inserts neat little meditations on randomness. By chance, a romantic bond forms between opponents in litigation over the building’s demolition, Jessica and Ray, while a second couple consists of Jessica’s best friend and Ray’s brother. There’s also a truckload of overdetermined opposites. Jessica, a photographer obsessed with documenting old buildings, has “no interest in the future,” and Louis, a 110-year-old man, has no memory of the past. He can’t remember; she can’t forget. Jessica is a sort of secular nun while her best friend, Jane, sleeps with 19 men between January and March. Ray is on top of the world, figuratively and almost literally when he stands on the roof of the building he plans to destroy, whereas his brother, Joseph, has just surfaced from the bottom of the sea after his tour of duty as a navy submariner. All five contemporary characters are struggling with how to live while a sixth–Vivian, a mysterious figure in Victorian dress–occupies herself with how to die.

Auburn’s apparent fascination with the movies extends beyond the structure of his play to a number of direct homages (or thefts): the couple’s lamp-lit discovery of a beautiful ruined room (The English Patient), the unpreventable female suicide that haunts the man forever (Vertigo), the sex-obsessed best friend picking up a sailor (On the Town). The preservationist saving the coldhearted developer actually predates its nearest film equivalent: the Sandra Bullock-Hugh Grant vehicle Two Weeks Notice, made in 2002. There’s also an unfortunate soliloquy about crashing a plane into the Empire State Building, which must have seemed a lot funnier before September 11.

It’s not a worthless script: there are a few interesting ideas and some appealing characters. But Scott Shallenbarger’s staging highlights the play’s worst features. Dialogue equal parts clever and contrived seems no better here than hopelessly awkward. Everything is played at fever pitch from the first moment. Gita Tanner is the worst offender as Vivian: her suicidal hysteria has no phases or variations, unless you count shrieks rising to wails and howls. Since she’s the only character whose background needs to be accounted for (though none of it’s actually explained–why is she wearing period clothes, for example?) nuance is essential: a high-decibel attack is exactly the wrong approach. The other women fare a bit better, but not much. Marcia Reinhard has been directed to play Jane, a comic-relief character, with untoward intensity, while Joanne Underwood’s Jessica is merely an annoying prig until she encounters Aaron Christensen’s Ray. At that point it seems Shallenbarger got out of the way and let the cast’s skills and good instincts take over.

When a single actor’s performance is off, it’s probably the actor’s responsibility. But when everyone seems to be stumbling, the problem lies at the director’s door. If a reliably thoughtful, capable actor is unpersuasive, as Christensen is in his early scenes, he’s been poorly directed. Similarly, Jeremy Glickstein does the best he can with Joseph given Shallenbarger’s mistakenly grave approach to the character: like Jane, Joseph should offer comic relief, or else his desperation–for liberation from the navy, for love–pulls the play off balance. The best performance comes from Larry Wiley as the demented 110-year-old. Touching and funny as a man drawn to the building without knowing why, he phases in and out of the present while retaining his gentlemanly manner. Even when surrounded by unnecessary screaming, Wiley remains subtle.

Scenic and lighting designer Christopher Ash has created a wonderful rooftop set, including a backdrop that changes from the twinkling lights of the city to architectural renderings with a simple shift in the lights. But despite his and the actors’ good efforts, the edifice they’ve built is too rickety to stand.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark Wielding.