John Turturro and Wrenn Schmidt in <i>The Master Builder</i>
John Turturro and Wrenn Schmidt in The Master Builder
(© Stephanie Berger)
Unhappy middle-aged men often make bad life choices, from leaving their devoted wives for a 20-something gold-digging bimbo to going into debt to buy a Ferrari. But Halvard Solness, the title character of Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder, ends up making a deadly one. What propels him to that final, horrible moment, both metaphorically and literally, is a question that never receives a truly satisfactory answer in Andrei Belgrader's off-kilter production at BAM's Harvey Theater.

Solness (John Turturro) has long been his town's leading architect, but he begins to fear that his young apprentice Ragnar (Max Gordon Moore) will eclipse him if given the chance. Moreover, his marriage to Aline (Katherine Borowitz) has suffered greatly since her family house burnt down twelve years ago — a disaster Solness thinks he foretold and one that led unexpectedly to the sudden death of their twin boys. So it's not entirely surprising that he's particularly susceptible to the charms of Hilde Wangel (Wrenn Schmidt), a nubile 23-year-old who shows up unexpectedly on the Solness' doorstep on the pretense of visiting Aline.

However, Hilde soon reveals that she has been infatuated with Solness for the past ten years since he built a tall church (his last such structure) in her hometown — and that, during this visit, he promised to build her a kingdom. And now she's come to claim it (and him!). Soon enough, Hilde is calling the shots, not only convincing Solness to let Ragnar start his own firm and finally marry Solness' meek bookkeeper Kaja (Kelly Hutchinson), but entreating him to climb to the tippy top of his newly built home, despite a fear of heights.

Ibsen likely intended for Hilde to represent the angel of death, but there's nothing remotely angelic about Schmidt's portrayal. The actress wavers between acting like a common slut (an impression reinforced by Marco Piemontese's too-short white dress and translator David Edgar's contemporary-sounding vernacular) and a crazed stalker a la Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. (If the Solnesses had a bunny, she'd be boiling it!)

Although Borowitz (the real-life Mrs. Turturro) plays Aline as a damaged woman who is merely going through the motions of life, it seems almost unfathomable that she would allow Hilde to stay in her house, but also openly seduce her husband. It's clear that Aline is still in love with Halvard, even if she treats him with a mix of coldness and contempt.

Meanwhile Turturro, always a fascinating performer, is most effective in the play's early scenes, when we're supposed to see Solness as the egotistical master builder of the show's title. And later, he does allow us to glimpse the desperation and vulnerability hidden beneath Solness' gruff exterior. However, he emits such strength that it seems suspicious that he would give in to any sort of death wish.

The most successful aspect of this production is Santo Loquasto's visually stunning set, a metal cage-like structure with a furnace in the middle that periodically rotates to reveal the various rooms and the garden of the Solness' house. And if you think that large, neutral, Scandinavian-looking panel at the very back of the stage will remain closed forever, you have another thing coming. In fact, Belgrade's coup de theatre is the one great master stroke in this otherwise troubling Master Builder.