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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Being Frank About Architecture - The Bilbao Effect - Play Review

The Bilbao Effect - The Center for Architecture - Off-Broadway, New York, NY - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Oren Safdie, Directed by Brendan Hughes
Closes on June 5, 2010

The term the Bilbao Effect was coined after the town of Bilbao Spain built Frank Gehry's design for the Guggenheim museum, casing a new surge in architecture tourism where the building itself became the spectacle. From then, every town seemed to want it's signature building designed by some Starchitect, whether the architecture was good itself, or good for the city.

The play The Bilbao Effect nicely skewers many of the issues Starchitecture has brought up, and it nicely pokes fun of some real architects and real projects, while bring up the whole issue of Architecture as a grander thing than just something that accommodates people. The play is a "trial" of sorts by the A.I.A. (American Institution of Architects) accusing one Starchitect of negligence in a new project on Staten Island that eventually causes the suicidal death of a bothered and depressed neighbour to the project. A clever ruse that brings up many recent rants architecture has raised, the play pokes fun of the high and mighty architect while the play slowly devolves into absurdity.

Now, if you don't know, I was trained as an Architect. I have my Masters degree in Architecture from the same school writer Oren's famous architect father (Moshe Safdie) graduated from (and whose thesis project became the built and infamous Habitat 67 that still exists in Montreal today). And while I don't practice anymore, I have many of the same rants Oren Safdie brings up in the play (and probably part of the reason I don't practice anymore? ha!). So I understood all the in-jokes and I knew all the projects Safdie makes fun of in the play and it made me laugh but I wonder if those not into Architecture will get most of the jokes? My friend I brought along didn't get the Architecture in-jokes but seemed to enjoy most of the other stuff as the play was presented comically broad enough to get the general idea.

The production, presented in the Center for Architecture's Gallery space (that can be interestingly seen from the street windows) is presented quite boldly but many of the performances seem to play it broad but not absurd enough, while a couple of the characters come from total absurdity.

Performing in the perfect balance is Marc Carver (above left) as the self appointed judge and John Bolton (Spamalot) as the accused Architect's "attorney". Jack Van Liew also turns in a hilarious performance as an testifying expert.

The play still needs a bit of tightening and editing, because at 90 minutes, there are moments that still feel too long, and the descent into absurdism seems to start too late. Some of the characters are etched in broad comic stereotypes and with some refinement in both writing and performance, the balance between the absurd and the real issues could really strengthen the construction of the play. As it is, the play is entertaining in it's rant on the progress of Architecture in our current world, but like the building in question, still has it's flaws.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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