Joris Stuyck, John Bolton, and Ann Hu
in The Bilbao Effect
(© Carol Rosegg)
Joris Stuyck, John Bolton, and Ann Hu
in The Bilbao Effect
(© Carol Rosegg)
Oren Safdie's The Bilbao Effect, now playing at the Center for Architecture, begins as a thoughtful if satiric exploration of the impact that contemporary architects can have on the residents of the communities in which their buildings are erected. Initially, there are giggles, and even some hearty laughs, to be found in the play. Unfortunately, the work, broadly directed by Brendan Hughes, eventually devolves into sophomoric silliness.

The piece revolves around a hearing being held by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which will determine whether or not "starchitect" Erhardt Shlaminger (played with grinning arrogance by Joris Stuyck) will be able to retain his membership in the organization.

A series of complaints by Paul Bolzano (whom Anthony Giaimo imbues with a deft mixture of dimness, sleaziness and self-righteousness) about the Shlaminger buildings erected in his neighborhood on Staten Island have raised issues about the designer's sensitivity to the needs of the community. Bolzano's complaints extend beyond the appropriateness of the structures to the neighborhood. He contends that the buildings -- gleaming geodesic and prism-like structures that jut out of the landscape (brought to life hilariously in an uncredited scale model) --contributed to his wife's suicide.

The scenario raises provocative questions about the ways in which urban redevelopment is being imagined in the 21st Century -- and initially, Safdie serves up the debate with equal parts seriousness and comedy. For instance, neither the plaintiff's attorney nor the counsel for the defense are licensed to practice law; Allen (the thoroughly winning John Bolton), who represents Shlaminger, can only work in the Bahamas, while Mitsumi (Ann Hu), appearing for Bolzano, is still a law student. Presiding over the hearing is Bill Watertsand (played with preening smugness by Marc Carver), the head of the AIA, who announces that the organization has every right to overturn whatever decision might be reached by the jury, meaning the audience.

As the playwright -- who penned the far superior Private Jokes, Public Places -- stretches his reality, the humor of the piece becomes increasingly and annoyingly absurd. First comes defense witness Alexandre Nusinovitski (a grandly detached and pompous Joel Van Liew), a former architecture critic for the Times, who posits conspiracy theories about the relationship between architects and those who write about them, and later shows signs of multiple personality disorder.

When the defense calls Shlaminger's mother (played with Prussian hauteur by Lorraine Serabian), the play derails further as truly bizarre details about her son's childhood are brought to light. By the time a furniture designer (Jay Sullivan) testifies, Watertsand is ignoring the proceedings as he deals with issues surrounding the sale of his home via cell phone.

Indeed, most theatergoers will have tuned out before the work culminates in a preposterous revelation and an absurd cataclysm, both of which defy credulity.