A topnotch cast attack The Monster Builder with gusto, but a rather creepy lead character and a bit too much of the quirky and bizarre make Amy Freed’s South Coast Repertory World Premiere satire of architectural pretention more miss than hit despite occasional forays into the weirdly hilarious.

Despite the ferry and taxi rides (and the hike up the cliff) that it took to get there, architect Rita (Susannah Schulman Rogers) and her professional-personal partner Dieter (Aubrey Deeker) could not be more thrilled to have been invited inside the ultra-modern, all-glass masterwork/monstrosity that world-renowned architect Gregor (Danny Scheie) and his glamorous but vapid girlfriend Tamsin (Annie Abrams) call home.

From the get-go it’s clear that all four characters inhabit their own removed-from-reality world. (When Dieter notices a cracked window, Rita calls it “a witty intentional reference to a kind of neo-Futurism that acknowledges that it is, already, of course, dead.”)

It’s clear, too, that at this point in their careers, Rita and Dieter can only aspire to Gregor’s worldwide fame, though at least there is hope that their firm, “Third Place,” so named because (after home and work) “there needs to be a third place, where citizens mingle to share common pleasures”, will put them on the architectural map.

To achieve this, the couple have set their sights on a rotting boathouse designed by 19th-century architect Joseph Van Eijk, a building they plan not to tear down and in its place build something cutting-edge as Gregor would surely do, but simply to “fortify,” using American materials, builders, painters, “perhaps even starting a kind of guild.”

In the meantime, Rita and Dieter have been commissioned by socialite Pamela Rogers-Pandermint (Collette Kilroy) and her husband Andy (Gareth Williams) to remodel “Casa Chateau,” the wealthy couple’s home away from home, a design that Pam insists must include a “fabulous” Samoan canoe “floating” high above the dining room table, an idea inspired by the F-16 she recently saw hanging over the lunch counter in D.C.’s Air And Space Museum.

And here you have not only the setup to Rita and Dieter vying with Gregor for the Van Eijk project with distinctly different plans for it in mind but also an idea of the way Freed’s quintet of characters think and talk, and for this reviewer, despite the more than a few laughs it offers along the way, The Monster Builder (or at least its first act) proves more that a bit off-putting (and judging from the number of patrons who elected not to return for Act Two, it would seem I’m not the only one to feel this way).

Things do perk up after intermission thanks in part to a slide show that takes us hilariously back into Gregor’s distant, distant past, but overall, The Monster Builder isn’t one of South Coast Rep’s stronger World Premieres.

That’s not to say that Abrams, Deeker, Kilroy, Scheie, and Rogers don’t give it their all. (I particularly liked Deeker’s engaging Dieter and Kilroy’s dialog-spitting Pam.) And director Art Manke once again proves himself a master of physical comedy, most notably in a scene in which Gregor uses Tamsin’s agile body like a human pretzel to illustrate his plans for the Van Eijk Boathouse.

Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz’s set succeeds in being as (presumably deliberately) off-putting as Gregor’s creations, Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes suit each character’s individual quirks to a T, Kent Dorsey’s lighting design is appropriately dramatic when called for, and Rodolpho Ortega’s soundscape and original music are fittingly offbeat, with special snaps to Gregor’s ivories-tickling tickling straight from church organ hell. Ken Merckx’s fight choreography scores points as well, along with some fabulous second act visual effects. Ursula Meyer is dialect coach.

John Glore is dramaturg. Joshua Marchesi is production manager. Lara K. Powell is stage manager. Casting is by Joanne DeNaut, CSA.

If The Monster Builder ends up concluding a previously all-around fabulous South Coast Repertory season with rather less fabulousness than its predecessors, it does provide a modicum of laughter along the way.

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South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
May 16, 2017
Photos: Debora Robinson/SCR


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