Architects are sexy, arrogant, and easily manipulated. Those are just three of the many lessons in writer/director Oren Safdie's new play, False Solution, now receiving its world premiere at La MaMa. It is a highly intellectual, talkie play, perfect if you're in the mood for a heady meditation on art and process followed by a caffeinated post-theater discussion of the Holocaust. Just don't go if you want to turn your brain off.
False Solution takes place in the basement design studio of a big international architecture firm in the early 1990s. World famous architect Anton Seligman (Sean Haberle) has been contracted by the post-communist Polish government to design a Holocaust museum in the center of a decaying city. First-year architecture student and intern Linda Johansson (Christy McIntosh) thinks his deconstructivist design is crap, riddled with obvious symbolism: It is not a worthy memorial to the millions who died. In an attempt to devise a better museum, they circle the room, hurling art theory at each other in a battle of wits infused with ever-growing sexual tension. Who knew that references to Albert Camus and Primo Levi could be so hot?
At one point, Anton spoons Linda behind the work table, guiding her hand in a free-form sketch as she recites Mieczysław Jastrun's poem "Here Too as in Jerusalem," about the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. According to Safdie, this is how architectural geniuses engage in foreplay.
And he would know: Once a graduate architecture student at Columbia University, Safdie turned his attention to the stage, penning such plays as Private Jokes, Public Places and The Bilbao Effect. His father, Moshe Safdie, is still an architect however, known for his breathtaking and unconventional design of the Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem, aspects of which are strikingly similar to the building described in this play.
The Holocaust is a secondary focus in this play. The crux is really about art and design, two subjects fiercely and eloquently debated here: "I thrive on dissension," says Anton. "It forces me to clarify my positions."
In this heated back-and-forth, the ten-dollar words explode forth at the audience: "expressionistic," "existential," "Bergmanesque." I temporarily went into art-school shell shock. The actors deserve a standing ovation for executing these linguistic acrobatics without a slip. In fact, they even make their mini-essay monologues sound believable, as if they really are just coming up on the fly with these well-crafted dissertations.
McIntosh is particularly convincing as Linda, the half-Jewish, yet oh-so-Aryan-looking beauty who knows how to use her sex to get in the door, yet knows how to take it away when it becomes a distraction to her larger goals. She wants to get under Anton's skin and her words land on him with a stinging precision.
Yet for a woman so eager to challenge Anton's every notion, Linda never bats an eye when he describes the state of Israel as the thing, "finally giving them [the Jews] self-determination." This statement is treated as a given — for many people, including many Jews, it is not — and that is certainly a missed opportunity for more "dissension."
This obvious omission may be part of Safdie's grander design. With all of their highfalutin words and false epiphanies — "You have these profusely deep epiphanies that are saturated with emotion, laden with sensitivity, touchingly acerbic," Anton tells Linda, as if he's hoping his insta-review of her thought process will be pull-quoted on her résumé: These people are full of crap. They are ridiculous parodies of intellectuals, more interested in self congratulation than honestly challenging discourse, even if they profess the exact opposite.
As playwright Charles Ludlam once wrote, "You are a living mockery of your own ideals." Safdie has written two very human characters, both with high ideals and real flaws. He has expertly directed his cast in bringing them to life. On top of that, he's given us an awful lot to think about when we leave the theater. Unlike the two people on stage, he doesn't pretend to have all the answers.