Despite more than a decade of rehearsing and tweaking a new version of Ibsen’s “The Master Builder,” translated and adapted by Wallace Shawn and staged by Andre Gregory in various private venues, there’s little to show for all the effort. The collaborators of “My Dinner With Andre” and “Vanya on 42nd Street” don’t illuminate Ibsen’s difficult hothouse of a play, now rather heavy-handedly titled “Fear of Falling,” and Jonathan Demme, stepping in where Louis Malle usually helmed, seems constricted and uninspired. Low-budget and set in one locale, this very minor career footnote has minuscule chances theatrically.
“The Master Builder” is perhaps Ibsen’s most personal play, having emerged during his later period, when psychological probing and symbolic undercurrents became more forceful elements of his work. Based on his own experiences — transpose Master Playwright for Master Builder — the drama concerns an egotistical architect confronted by an ambiguous young woman he likely made love to 10 years earlier, when she was an adolescent.
The characters are constantly trying to clarify, to better explain thoughts and actions whose meanings are often elusive even to themselves, yet since this is Ibsen, their attempts are usually hesitant and unsuccessful. Shawn, who did his own translation (though he doesn’t speak Norwegian), characteristically intervenes and tries to make absolutely clear what Ibsen deliberately left uncertain; when his Master Builder asks, “What are you trying to say to us, exactly?” it might as well be the adapter offering the key to his engagement with the original text. Unfortunately, such inelegant attempts at clarity turn a subtle, symbolically rich play into a dull, overemphatic and far lesser thing.
Halvard Solness (Shawn) is ill, surrounded by nurses all day in a large house next to the site of his wife’s family home, which mysteriously burned down several decades earlier. On that spot a new, even larger mansion is being built, with an imposing tower whose metaphorical nature represents Solness’ hubris and, given his vertigo, his fear of falling from his lofty position as the region’s prime architect. Years earlier he’d worked for Knut Brovik (Gregory), but he quickly surpassed his teacher, pulling him down on the way to the top.
Now Brovik’s son Ragnar (Jeff Biehl) works for Solness, but the Master Builder has a vested interest in undervaluing his talented junior associate, since acknowledging his worth would mean there’s a rival architect in town. To that end, Solness feigns passion for his secretary Kaia Fosli (Emily Cass McDonnell), Ragnar’s fiancee: By making her think he’s devoted to her, the Master Builder plots to keep Ragnar similarly chained to his side. Aline (Julie Hagerty), Solness’ primly correct wife, is consumed by jealousy (among other things), but with the unexpected arrival of pretty young Hilda Wangel (Lisa Joyce), her resentment doubles.
Hilda, 22, brazenly flirtatious in her shorty shorts, is the daughter of an old friend of Solness’ and claims to need a place to stay for the night. Once alone with the architect, she probes his memory, forcing him to recall a party 10 years earlier when he plied his affections; he left such an impression on the girl, with his promises of making her his princess, that she drove to find her seducer on the anniversary of that fateful evening. However, though he plays along and enjoys her coquettishness, Solness has no memory of the event.
Ibsen allows doubt to creep in: Did Solness really force himself on the 12-year-old Hilda, or did she misinterpret playfulness for pedophilic ardor? Both readings are possible given the personalities of the two involved: Hilda is delusional, but is she back to exact vengeance, or to claim her tiara and the man who promised it to her? Fortunately, Shawn allows this uncertainty to remain, yet scenes that should be probing are merely wordy, and the adaptation lacks a strong enough sense of modulated construction, making for a tedious sit.
One of the biggest problems, though, is the performances. It’s hard to believe this was rehearsed for more than 10 years, given the actors’ overtheatricality, which would feel oppressive even onstage. Fans of Shawn pay to see Shawn rather than Shawn as someone else, and in this they won’t be disappointed, for he’s as far from Ibsen’s Master Builder as can be imagined. It’s impossible to believe in the sexual tension between Solness and Kaia, or between and Solness and Hilda, and Shawn, in his need for a kind of extra-intelligibility, delivers his lines as if speaking to the befuddled. Hagerty’s tendency toward neurotic fragility is on full display, making Aline less a pathetic yet powerful woman than a caricature of repressed hysteria, and Joyce’s manic spurts of laughter are dreadfully arch.
Demme’s approach appears to be largely hands-off, taking everything at face value in countless sequences featuring shot/counter-shot conversations with zero visual interest. The digital harshness is unattractive, the cheap zooms are inelegantly inserted, and the color tonalities don’t match in glimpses of the house exterior. (The pic was shot at Gotham’s Pen and Brush Club, with exteriors lensed in Nyack, N.Y.) Sunlight is a key visual motif, shining brightly through leaves in a few unnecessary tree-filled interludes and filling the house as if to symbolize some kind of intellectual illumination. Alas, this, too, doesn’t succeed.