Just for whom – or what – is an architect working? The people who will use his building? The clients who are paying for it? The community? Posterity? Or his own personal artistic glory? Oren Safdie’s new satirical comedy parses the conflicting demands of a profession and a public that, between them, keep construction contentious.
The Bilbao Effect takes its name from the phenomenon whereby an attention-grabbing new building designed by a big-name architect promises to turn a once sleepy locale into a “destination” – as in the case of Frank Gehry’s design for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. In Safdie’s new play, the second in a projected trilogy about issues facing contemporary architecture, the construction of just such a building on New York’s own Staten Island allegedly causes a woman who lives across the street from the redevelopment to kill herself – and the “starchitect” responsible, Erhardt Shlaminger (played as a genial, urbane egomaniac by Joris Stuyck) is forced by the American Institute of Architects (which is, in turn, pushed by public opinion and the New York attorney general) to defend his work in a mock trial. Shlaminger’s aggressive lawyer (John Bolton) isn’t licensed in New York, and plaintiff Paul Bolzano (Anthony Gialmo), the Staten Island chiropractor whose wife committed suicide, is represented by a third-year law student at NYU (Ann Hu), but the “trial” could result in career-damaging censure for Shlaminger. The whole is presided over by the suavely self-satisfied AIA President (Marc Carver) while the audience is called upon to act as “jury” – with the proviso that the judge will overrule them as he sees fit.
Given New York’s long history of hotly debated architectural projects, the topic’s particularly promising here, and the elegant site-specific set – in the Center for Architecture on LaGuardia Place – grants some gravitas to the proceedings – at least initially. The play starts with a strong foundation, laying down arguments pro and con, and, as the mock lawyers call witnesses to the stand, the audience is treated to an array of entertaining characters who embody different viewpoints: The unappreciative and somewhat shifty plaintiff whose story is just a little more complicated than he’d let on; the high-minded, high-strung ex-New York Times critic (played with a convincing blend of snootiness and neurosis by Joel van Liew); the avant-garde Belgian furniture designer (Jay Sullivan) whose designs sound as deadly as they are impractical; even the architect’s own imposingly Viennese mother (a sternly dramatic Lorraine Serabian). Brendan Hughes’ capable direction, Safdie’s sharp dialogue and the talented cast make each character memorable – as when the plaintiff movingly describes his attachment to the neighborhood where he’s lived all his life or the architect tries to justify windows that face the ground.
But as the play progresses, the trial that is its firm structural foundation slowly collapses into chaos and absurdity, while the judge becomes absorbed in cell phone calls about a house sale. Elaborating further would give too much away, but this collapse does suggest how deeply architecture infiltrates all of our lives and how inextricably entwined these issues are with all of our lives. However, the questions that the playwright raises are never really answered, and the surprise ending seems as much his escape from a structure he’s lost control of as a carefully constructed thematic choice. Then again, based on the model of the Staten Island piece de resistance displayed to the audience, the playwright may merely be mimicking Shlaminger’s own misbegotten masterpiece. Regardless, the playwright does succeed in making the arguments evenhanded, accessible and entertaining. Now if only he could help arbitrate the Atlantic Yards.