The family in "The Empire Builders," the latest production by th enterprising Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, is fleeing a noise. The noise sounds like static, or perhaps an electric coffee percolator, and the family is fleeing not because it grates on their nerves, but because it is for some reason threatening. Each of the three acts of the play finds the family in a smaller apartment. Members of the group--father, mother, daughter, maid--are gradually jettisoned until the father is left alone with his fear and a wordless man who mysteriously precedes the family to each new refuge. The man is bandaged and bloody, and the father pushes and swats him as though he were an annoying dog.
Playwright Boris Vian, a Grenchman who died in 1959 at age 39, was an absurdist. With playwright Eugene Ionesco and other he was a "pataphysique," carrying on the tradition started by the dadaists of ridiculing intellectual pomposity. They were dedicated to deflating seriousness with nonsense.
In "The Empire Builders" Vian dramatizes man's fear of death. The noise is--perhaps--the buzz saw of man's knowledge of his own mortality, always there but usually disregarded.
The daughter, confused and resentful at having to move so often, asks what the noise is. "It's a symbol, an image, a reference point, a warning," say her mother and father. At other times the parents pretend they don't hear it, as parents ignore something embarrassing that they don't want to acknowledge in front of their children.
Perhaps it is just a nonsensical device, a mysterious provocation. Each time they flee, the silent, bandaged bum is there before them; he is called The Schmurz. In German "schmerz" means pain or suffering; vian took the name Schmurz as a pseudonym.
No matter how the situation worsens, the father says things are "for the best." As the walls close in and the exits are cut off, he arms himself with ridiculous weapons.
As with all theater of the absurd, it is the mind that is engaged in "The Empire Builders" rather than the emotions. The play is not connected to a specific time or place but rather is a platform in the existential cosmos, decorated by the personalities of the characters. It can be theatrically pallid if you are not prepared.
Director Roger M. Brady has approached the play with the right sense of cockeyed seriousness. Thetranslation by Simon Watson Taylor is particularly literate and interesting.