Then and Now Masterful

The Master Builder Starring James Naughton, Kristin Griffith

The Irish Repertory Theatre, New York

THE more a man wants, the less he gets. That sobering maxim is at the heart of The Master Builder, Henrik Ibsen's fresh as the day it was written play, in a translation by the celebrated Irish playwright Frank McGuinness that's now playing at The Irish Repertory Theatre in New York.

First performed in 1893, Ibsen's overtly symbolic work has lost none of its potency in the hundred years or so since its first performance in Berlin. But its themes have not achieved greater clarity over the course of time, either.

A symbolist drama in the loosest sense, The Master Builder is a fascinating mix of ideas in search of a play, which may explain some of its enduring allure to ambitious playwrights and directors.

McGuinness's translation, drafted in the Irish vernacular, moves at a clip and helps to anchor a lot of the action - but it's the play itself that often mystifies. Is The Master Builder a Victorian morality tale, or a Greek tragedy, or a modern version of the Faust myth, or is it a deeply Freudian examination of the psyche?

The answer is yes to all four and more besides. It's one of Ibsen's headiest later works, and in it he alternates wildly between ideas and action.

Halvard Solness, the show's anti-hero (played by screen heartthrob James Naughton) is a middle-aged architect who has clawed his way to the top of his profession through sheer determination and a single-minded focus on his job, but the process has hardened him, preventing him and his wife Aline (Kristin Griffith) from sharing a meaningful private life. Their marriage is a subsumed by their building company.

The play might have succeeded on its own terms if Ibsen had been content to leave it at that. But the restless Norwegian genius saw all manner of symbolic possibilities in his fairly straightforward premise and attached them all to the final work, weighing down his drama and his characters.

The terrible price of overweening ambition is symbolized in the sickly figure of his elderly assistant, Knut Brovik (Herb Foster), a former employer that Solness has mercilessly stepped on to reach the top. Solness is utterly terrified of being eclipsed by a younger generation of architects, and so he refuses to allow Brovik's son to design original houses or to leave the firm and strike out on his own.

It's an intergenerational struggle between fathers and sons that could have been ripped out of Freud's famous psychological case studies, and it veers toward tragedy with an inevitability that does nothing to lesson its sorrow.

In the role of the proud and misguided master builder, Naughton finds all of the resentment and terror lurking beneath the cool impressive surface of his character. His Solness is vain, dissembling and even jaw-droppingly cruel when cornered, making him far from heroic. He may have achieved worldly success, but when it comes at such a steep price there's little joy in it.

In the role of his stricken, haunted wife Aline, Griffith is well cast. She brings real warmth and feeling to a difficult role as the master builder's wronged wife. Alternating between high Victorian reserve and all too brief flashes of the brilliant and loving young woman she once was, Griffith gives a hypnotic performace that's flawlessly acted.

"It's the little things in life that smash your heart to pieces," she quietly tells young Hilda Wangel, the rival for her husband's affections, and she makes you feel for a moment what she has felt.

As Hilda, the vivacious young woman who has idolized Solness for years, Charlotte Parry tackles an ambitious role with tremendous confidence.

Hilda's the foil that allows Solness to explain how his towering ambition has always prevented him from achieving any satisfaction. In McGuinness's translation we are still left to wonder - as Ibsen left his original audience - if Hilda is a force for good or ill.

The symbolism of an aging man creating one last enormous tower before the floods of young people he fears overwhelm his potency hardly needs to be guessed at. But the play is much deeper than that, and Ibsen leaves few stones unturned.

Playwright McGuinness and the Irish Repertory Theatre have tackled this difficult but absorbing play with a rare degree of clarity.

The Master Builder is now playing at the Irish Rep, 132 West 22nd Street. For tickets and showtimes call 212-727-2737.

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