If you listen carefully, Henrik Ibsen can be hilarious. The Norwegian playwright invented the domestic drama with plays like “A Doll House,” “Hedda Gabler” and “The Wild Duck,” always mixing life-and-death risk with the comic idiosyncrasies of everyday existence. The Irish helped introduce him to English-speakers — George Bernard Shaw championed the initial, illegal private stagings of Ibsen’s controversial plays — so it’s fitting that Irish Rep should choose to revive “The Master Builder” in a clever, conversational new translation by Irish playwright and poet Frank McGuinness. It’s just a shame the production is so deadly serious.
Things start off well, especially with Herb Foster opening the play as Knut Brovik, elderly father of promising architect Ragnar (Daniel Talbott). Ragnar has been kept from advancement by the master builder himself, Halvard Solness (James Naughton), whom old Brovik hates both for his success and his meanness to Ragnar.
Foster knows how to work every desperate syllable of Ibsen’s frustrated father; he makes so much of his only scene it’s tempting to mentally recast him as Halvard as the play wanders forward.
As Brovik exits, Ibsen complicates things further: Halvard’s assistant Kaja (Letitia Lange) is in love with him; Halvard is married to longsuffering Aline (Kristin Griffith); and Ragnar thinks he’s going to marry Kaja. These relationships intersect and double back on one another during the long first scene, played out on Eugene Lee’s improbably handsome workroom set. (Lee has gone the extra mile to work around the Irish Rep’s spatial challenges.)
And then, around the time one of Lee’s walls splits open to reveal a gash of light and song and a young woman named Hilde (Charlotte Parry), some real problems set in. The play has been totally naturalistic up to this point, and the sudden intrusion of divine imagery seems to come from another production entirely.
Helmer Ciaran O’Reilly has ideas for “The Master Builder” that are either too large for his budget (the “townspeople” called for in the script boil down to one maid), or too direct for this play. In hewing to the author’s intent, McGuinness has gone to great pains to express the extraordinary in the language his characters also use to talk about ordering office supplies and signing contracts. So when the director decides occasionally that the play needs to be jazzed up, he breaks it.
This might at least make for an interesting interpretation if it didn’t leave O’Reilly with large sections with which he simply can’t do anything wacky. Glaringly, there’s what must be a 20-minute section of dialogue between Halvard and Hilde that everyone, including the actors, seems to be waiting out. It’s the most important exchange in the play, in which Hilde details her ambitions and Halvard his fears, but since O’Reilly gives it no arc or texture, it’s about as thrilling as oatmeal.
Naughton receives top billing, but the two-time Tony winner (both for musical roles) is somewhat out of his depth, unable to provide what O’Reilly won’t or can’t. Parry, with whom Naughton shares the stage most often, is in similar shape.
What pleasures there are to be had come from the supporting cast, especially Griffith as the dutiful wife. It’s a production with no shortage of well-observed individual moments, but no real guiding hand to provide some much-needed urgency.