The Empire Builders, Sense of Urgency Productions, at the Viaduct Theater. French playwright, novelist, songwriter, critic, and jazz trumpeter Boris Vian is best known for his scandalous 1946 detective novel I Shall Spit on Your Graves. When the book was turned into a third-rate film in 1959, Vian attended a preview screening in Paris–where he died of a heart attack, reportedly because he was so appalled at the mistreatment of his book. He might have responded similarly to this production.

But then director Robert Dorjath seems so stymied by Vian’s absurdist style that the author might not have recognized the play as his own. Written a few months before his death at age 39, The Empire Builders features a jittery bourgeois couple and their long-winded maid and long-suffering teenage daughter. The family lives under the constant threat of a strange noise; whenever the rumbling begins, the father leads his traumatized family up another floor in their apartment building. But instead of safety they find progressively smaller flats, and no matter what floor they occupy, the Schmurz lurks–a mute, rag-clad figure the couple physically abuses.

Vian’s rigorous illogic might make for bracing theater, but without a rigorous approach the play disintegrates into nonsense. Dorjath’s cast members display such divergent acting styles and varying degrees of skill that no coherent world develops. The action seems arbitrary and directionless, and a generally sluggish pace undermines any nascent stakes, making for a hollow evening.