Why Ibsen, you old devil. We didn't know you had it in you. We didn't know "The Master Builder" had "it" in it. What's "it"? Well, in flapper days they didn't call Clara Bow "The It Girl" for nothing.
In the Kennedy Center's new production of "The Master Builder," which opened over the weekend, Jane Alexander is not precisely "The It Girl" of 1892. But she comes close enough to pump a lot of blood into a rather dry play. Just as her character, Hilde, prods Master Builder Solness out of the musty past and into a brief, dizzying future, Alexander lifts "The Master Builder" out of the textbooks and momentarily makes it sing.
"The Master Builder" does not carry a tune easily, Ibsen's plays are commonly divided into the early poetry ("Peer Gynt") and the later prose ("Hedda Gabbler"), but "The Master Builder" and the plays that followed it in his last years tried to infuse prose with poetry, on a personal rather than a social level. It didn't always work.
Sometimes "The Master Builder" stretches too far for its poetry. Within four lines, Solness calls Hilde "a wild bird of the forest," "a bird of prey," and "the dawn." Catch phrases like "helpers and servers," "castles (or harps) in the air" and others, oaky at first hearing, become awkward or banal when repeated several times. Of course these are translations (and this is a new one by Alexander and Sam Engelstad), but they never change from one translation to the next. Perhaps an understanding of Norwegian is necessary to appreciate Ibsen's lyric gifts.
his dramatic gifts, on the other hand, are considerable. Untrained architect Solness - underneath his brilliant success - feels insecure about his professional status and guilty about his personal life. True believer Hilde, a menber of the same generation that has provoked his insecurity and the same sex that has filled him with guilt, walks into his life and takes charge.She makes him forget his inner demons and instigates a new can-do spirit. But the demons are not purged, just forgotten.
It's an engaging but not an entirely convincing situation, and in the absence of effective verbal poetry, something has to be added to "The Master Builderr," particularly in a theater like the Eisenhower which is too big for chamber drama. Director Edwin Sherin has been quite resourceful.
Alexander sets the tone. She will astonish those who think of her as Eleanor Roosevelt or as "The Heiress," her last Kennedy Center creation. Her first entrance - dressed by Ann Roth in a lavish peasant skirt, with long knee-socks and a walking stick, all topped with a long curly wig - is one for the books. Not as calculating as "The It Girl" or as blissed out as a flower child, comparisons like that nevertheless come easily. She's a bohemian, receptive to the "advanced ideas" of the Victorian age but bored with books, ready to embrace anything that interests her.
Solness interests her, and Richard Kiley's performance is eminently watchable, if predictable. Kiley is properly bored until Alexander comes along, but as his self-pity begins to bore her, he becomes as intrigued by her as she is by him. Finally, so inspired is he by her, you expect him to break into "The Impossible Dream" (the song he introcued in "Man of La Mancha," in the role that will repeat later this summer here). But this is no "love pure and chaste from afar." This is a passionate Ibsen, complete with soulful kisses that weren't written in the script.
Designers John Wulp and Roger Morgan have created a magnificient stage gradually moving outdoors from act to act and culminating in an almost barren third act, first made stark by the grim presence of Teresa Wright as Mrs. Solness, then exploding outward into an image out of Wagner for the closing scene. This isn't Wagner, of course - there is still an airless quality about "The Master Builder" - but in this production the play breathes deeply for a few bold, invigorating minutes.