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A CurtainUp Review
The Bilbao Effect

The case was made for using architecture to revitalize the economies of post-industrial cities by establishing a brotherhood of 'superstar' architects who would generate spectacles bolstered by our reviews, creating 'architourism', or what has become known today as the 'Bilbao Effect'. .mdash; Alexandre Nusinovitski
The Bilbao Effect
(l - r): Ann Hu (Mitsumi Yoshida), Marc Carver (Bill Watertsand) and Joris Stuyck (Erhardt Shlaminger)
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The witch-hunt is on in Oren Safdie's The Bilbao Effect when a noted architect is told that his urban redevelopment project for Staten Island has led to a woman's suicide. Now running at the Center for Architecture in Greenwich Village, this piece is the second play in the author's planned trilogy of architecturally-themed works. And though it doesn't hit quite the satiric mark of the first part of the trilogy, Private Jokes, Public Places (see link at end of review), it boldly tackles some ethical questions facing architects today.

The title is a term used for a practice that became common after Frank Gehry built the Guggenheim Museum in the poor industrial port city of Bilbao, Spain. The museum subsequently became such a popular tourist destination that it prompted other struggling cities to cast about for celebrity architects who could design equally alluring buildings to boost their economies.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) an apt site specific setting for Safdie's use of a mock trial as his basic theatrical conceit. We meet the Clerk (Tommy Biggiani), Judge Bill Watertsand (Marc Carver), prosecuting attorney Mitsumi Yoshida (Ann Hu), defense attorney Allen Kaufman (John Bolton), plaintiff Dr. Paul Bolzano (Anthony Giaimo), starchitect Erhardt Shlaminger (Joris Stuyck), and a renowned architectural critic Alexandre Nusinovitski (Joel Van Liew).

Consider this hearing as a mating of the American legal court system with the AIA protocol, and to add a bot of democratic flavor, the audience is invited to be the stand-in jury. Oh, and expect this court to allow all manner of detours into absurdism.

While the trial is a comic device, Safdie's is also bent on exploring the serious theme of the glamourizing of architecture so that urban planning involves a search for what's come to be known as "Starchitects" whose names attached to mega urban centers can be compared to the way Hollywood A-list actors are secured to insure film financing.

Some scenes possess a dark Kafka-esque atmosphere. For instance, there is a mysterious entrance of Shlaminger's mother Ettie Hillman-Shlaminger (Lorraine Serabian) from the back of the theater. And when the defense attorney calls her as a witness, whose raison d'etre seems to be in providing off-beat anecdotes about her son's precocious childhood. Another late witness is the posh Belgian avant-garde furniture designer Grole Andacht (Jay Sullivan). There's so much frantic energy in this play that one can easily lose track of the storyline.

The acting is broad, as is Brendan Hughes's direction. If I were pressed to pick the star turn of the evening, the honor would go to Ann Hu as prosecuting attorney Mitsumi Yoshida. She's entertainingly tenacious and not quite the cool lawyer she appears to be.

Architecture aficionados will enjoy Shlaminger's slide show of great contemporary buildings and his insider's facts and funny stories about these iconic urban centres. To wit: the Sydney Opera House ran 1, 400 percent over budget,and it leaked like a sieve.

There's no question that the playwright knows his architecture. As the son of the famous architect Moshe Safdie, he grew up in Montreal in Habitat '67, one of his father's signature building complexes. He later studied architecture at Columbia University, but took a different career path after taking a playwriting class.

The Bilbao Effecthas character as well as thematic links to Private Jokes, Public Places, but you don't need to have seen the first play to catch on to the theconnection. Each play is structured to stand independently. It's the somewhat uneasy mix of thought provoking issues and off-the-wall comedy that tends to point to structural weaknesses. But then weren't all those starchtects competing to memorialize the World Trade Center tragedy a sad and absurd spectacle?

Editor's Note: This is certainly a season with new plays that put the spotlight on art and architecture. As The Bilbao Effect opened, so did a new historical drama, The Glass House about the famous Farnsworth House designed by a man who was a starchitect long before the term became popular, Mies van der Rohe. The Broadway hit Red puts the focus on an artist creating murals for van der Rohe's Seagram Building. And at New York Theater Workshop in the East Village, playwright/performer Claudia Shear looks at the restorer's art in a play called — what else— Restoration. . I'll be reviewing it later this week. To read my review of Private Jokes, Public Places when it played at this same site-specific venue go here.— elyse sommer

The Bilbao Effect
Written by Oren Safdie
Directed by Brendan Hughes
Cast: Tommy Biggiani (Clerk), Marc Carver (Bill Watertsand), Ann Hu (Mitsumi Yoshida), John Bolton (Allen Kaufman), Anthony Giaimo (Paul Bolzano), Joris Stuyck (Erhardt Shlaminger), Lorraine Serabian (Ettie Hillman-Shlaminger), Joel Van Liew (Alexandre Nusinovitski), Jay Sullivan (Grole Andacht).
Sets: Jisun Kim
Costumes: Tristan Raines
Sound: Ben Arons
Lighting: Cat Tate Starmer
Production Stage Manager: Mary Ellen Allison
Fight Director: Matthew R. Wilson
Center for Architecture at 536 LaGuardia Place street address phone 212/352-3101
From 5/12/10; opening 5/15/10; 6/05/10.
Wednesday through Saturday @ 8pm.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $18
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on May 13th press performance
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