THE MONSTER-BUILDER is a world premiere from hotshot playwright Amy Freed, and Artists Repertory Theatre deserves props for ushering the script to the stage—even if their production has a few hitches.
The show opens at a cocktail party, as world-famous architect Gregor Zubrowski (Michael Elich) proudly shows off the home he has designed for himself, perched high on a hill overlooking fishermen's shacks and meth labs. The house's walls are made of glass. Do you think someone will throw a stone?
Gregor has his sights set on an idealistic young architect, Rita (Allison Tigard), who runs a firm called Third Place Design. (Starbucks... barista... flashbacks....) To win her over, he pulls strings to secure a contract she's gunning for, then lures her in to help work on his vision for it: Instead of preserving a local boathouse and turning it into a farmers' market, as she wants to do, together they'll demolish the original building and replace it with a high-concept monstrosity.
This show is supposed to be funny, but it was well into the first act before that fact was conclusively established; and even then, too many of the jokes are of the "laugh if you got the reference" variety. (Are you familiar with Howard Roark? Waldorf schools? How about Forbes' annual "30 Under 30" list?) There's also some confusion—rooted in this specific production, I think, more than the script itself—about whether the crunchy, high-minded progressivism of Rita and her husband is supposed to be funny. I think it is, and I think whoever decided to dress them in white and shower them with flower petals in the show's final moments knows it—but Allison Tigard plays her earnest architect character too straight, with a sincerity that muffles jokes instead of amplifying them.
Fortunately, out-of-towner Michael Elich as Gregor is up to the challenge of almost single-handedly maintaining the show's comic energy, his outlandish accent and theatrical villainy pushing the tone into the realm of the absurd. He gets significant help from the excellent comic actress Bhama Roget, who plays his wife.
Freed's script is a fast-paced riff on ambition, selling out, artistic pretension, and the subjectivity of taste, among other things—it's a comedy that wants you to know it's smart, too. Artists Rep's production struggles to balance those elements, but it runs through March—there's time to work it out.