Wallace Shawn plays Ibsen's womanizing architect in 'A Master Builder'

By Barry Paris / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It's been a long time -- 33 years, to be exact -- since actor Wallace Shawn and director Andre Gregory famously dined in front of a camera. Now, if not quite by popular demand, they're together again thanks to Henrik Ibsen and Jonathan Demme.

Ibsen's "A Master Builder" -- directed by Mr. Demme and featuring the two stars of "My Dinner With Andre" -- opens the ninth annual CMU International Film Festival tonight in high fashion, appropriate to its theme this year, "Faces of Work."

Nobody ever worked harder than Solness (Mr. Shawn) to get where he is -- the pinnacle of success as a great architect. But did he get there honestly? Did he undercut old Brovik (Mr. Gregory), who gave him his start? And has he been sabotaging the career of Brovik's son Ragnar (Jeff Biehl) along the way?

Of more prurient interest, Solness has been having a hot affair with Ragnar's fiancee Kaja (Emily Cass McDonnell), under Ragnar's clueless nose -- if noses may be said to be clueless. Mrs. Solness (Julie Hagerty) knows, or at least suspects, everything. But her manipulative, egomaniacal hubby keeps running roughshod over everybody.

He builds tall buildings. He occupies the height of his profession.

His Achilles heel?

He's afraid of heights.

After a lifetime of bullying his wife, employees and mistresses alike, he now wants to make peace. But along comes sexy, angelic Hilde (Lisa Joyce) to unhinge both his agony and ecstasy -- as well as his planned escape route from here to eternity.

Mr. Gregory, who staged "Master Builder" in New York 14 years ago, found its previous translations replete with brilliant passages plus "completely incomprehensible and boring" ones. Mr. Shawn volunteered to retranslate it -- although he spoke not a word of Norwegian. Mr. Demme described that process in a phone interview with me this week:

"Wally had the original text blown up large, then he had a Norwegian translator write the synonyms [of key words] in the margins. He picked the ones he liked best and, with certain cuts and changes of emphasis, did his own translation and screenplay."

It is, overall, very faithful to Ibsen, except for a dubious hospital framing device. But conveying the play's difficult dialogue to a live audience from a theater stage vs. an unseen viewer from an intimate film set requires wholly different acting styles.

In that regard, the performances elicited here by Mr. Demme are superb -- as we might expect from the man whose "Silence of the Lambs" generated five Oscars. Mr. Shawn's casting in the title role, however, is problematic as well as brilliant. He is deliciously slimy, lying, rationalizing and devastating everyone around him before cheerfully dispatching them until the next occasion for their abuse. I love his bad-taste-in-the-mouth pronunciation of "RAG-nar!" -- like Seinfeld's "NEW-man!" -- whenever he's forced to utter the name.

But as a super-sexed womanizer, holding three beauties mesmerized for life? Ibsen describes Solness as an imposing middle-aged man, "strong and vigorous, with close-cropped curly hair, dark moustache and thick dark eyebrows." Short, bald Wally Shawn? With his charming but not exactly erotic lisp?

No way he's gonna drive women crazy.

"But he captured the magnitude of the guy -- the intellectual," said Mr. Demme. He's right about that. But I once saw the late great Dame Judith Anderson play Hamlet. She was riveting and unforgettable. But she was not Hamlet.

Talk about "problem" plays. There's a lot of autobiographical stuff here in the issues Ibsen was trying to work out. "A Doll's House," at least, was resolved. As Stella Adler put it: "When Nora walked out at the end, the whole world heard the door slam."

"A Master Builder," on the contrary, raises a hundred questions and leaves us to supply the answers. "If Ragnar rises, I go down," says Solness. His fear of the younger generation pushing him aside is worse than (or the same as) his fear of death itself.

Mr. Demme, like Louis Malle, takes a spare, minimalist, straightforward approach to his material and gets out of the way of it. There is enormous intelligence and artistic integrity in his effort. He largely employs a play of the eyes: Brovik's tearful, hopeless, despairing old eyes; Ragnar's huge, hysterical eyes; Kaja's constantly terrified eyes; Mrs. Solness' mad, tear-stained eyes; sexy Hilde's eyes of a Lolita-like nymphet -- and the nervous tensions between and among all of them.

Ingmar Bergman meets Tennessee Williams, in a way. Mr. Demme shoots almost all of it in tight close-ups, occasionally zooming for emphasis.

Among the sublime-to-ridiculous answers of those 100 questions is Mr. Gregory's: He calls "A Master Builder" a meditation on finding grace "just as the clock is about to strike midnight" and you realize that "the last great creative adventure is dying in a positive way."

H.L. Mencken, on the other hand, said the play's most profound, bottom-line meaning is: "That a man of 55 or 60 is an ass to fall in love with a flapper of 17."

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. You have to see this challenging Jonathan Demme film and decide for yourself exactly where.

"A Master Builder" screens at 7:15 tonight only at the Regent Square Theater. Director Jonathan Demme will attend the opening-night reception. Admission: $20; $10 students and seniors.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: parispg48@aol.com.

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