Being an architect is daunting. You are saddled with the task of building the way we perceive the world. According to Oren Safdie’s new play False Solution, now playing at LaMama E.T.C. it’s a world of artistic frustration, manipulation, and seduction.
Curtains up on a fluorescent-lit design studio run by the world-renowned German-Jewish architect Anton Seligman (Sean Haberle), who has been commissioned to design a new Holocaust museum in Poland. Linda Johansson (Christy McIntosh), his striking new intern and a first-year architecture student, isn’t impressed by his mockup: she thinks his design is obvious and passé, not a fitting memorial to the millions who died. They wax poetic over philosophy, deconstructivism, and each other’s pasts. We watch them ebb and wane, literally and emotionally, as they drink, debate, praise, sketch, and even do backbends together. We see the version of an architect that Safdie wants us to see: idealistic, fiercely proud, and in possession of a Webster’s-worthy vocabulary. It’s a fast-talking play, the kind that forces you to focus with an academic precision. And it presents an interesting premise: how does one commemorate an event as rooted in people’s pasts as the Holocaust while still being fresh and true to one’s own aesthetic? In the world of False Solution, finding out requires monologues of epic length, hashing and rehashing of art theory and personal history, and perhaps it requires even destroying everything so it can be rebuilt: an idea not too far off from Hitler’s justification of his “Final Solution.” Safdie certainly has his work cut out for him, and he tackles the question admirably. Unfortunately, he throws so much into the mix that, for the most part, it comes across as a head-scratching mess. He is too indulgent, wanting to touch upon every possible storyline and variation to the characters’ perspectives. From discovering that Anton’s wife has been institutionalized, to Linda’s confession that she’s descended from a survivor, we’re not sure which character to pity more.
Nevertheless, kudos are in order to the actors for merely handling the challenge of the text: the two characters heatedly throw around ten-dollar words with the ease of an athlete, and with no less vigor. It’s a testament to Safdie that he refuses to dumb down his prose even for a second. But it backfires: the manner in which the characters speak is imbibed with so much florid language that it overflows and fails to land. It’s obvious that Safdie knows what he’s talking about; after all, his father was Moshde Safdie, who designed the Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The writing in False Solution is crisp, witty, and precise to the point of being mathematical. Is it impressive? Absolutely. But is it believable? Not for a second. There is simply too much offered to us in the 80-minute play: there are too many half-presented themes, too much tension building without any respite, that by the play’s mid-way point we are gasping for any kind of pause. We watch Linda and Anton as they sketch and flirt and label each other as “acerbic” and “macabre” and “Bergman-esque.” Bombarding the audience with sentences worthy of Vladimir Nabokov can be a clever tactic, but the risk is that the audience may fail to latch on. It almost seems unfair: we observe these intelligently sculpted ideas from a distance without being allowed inside. The result is that we are left with nothing but a visceral reaction – not necessarily a bad one, but a mixture of both awe and annoyance, undiagnosable and too quick-moving for us to have anything but a vague idea of what is going on.
That’s not to say that there isn’t promise in False Solution. Though it fails to immediately captivate, it does start to anchor around the midway point. It’s at this point at which the bizarre sexual tension which we all knew was inevitable finally becomes tangible. The climax of the play occurs when Anton physically guides Linda’s hand in a free-form sketch of a brand new museum design, while she recites Mieczyslaw Jastrun’s poem “Here Too As In Jerusalem.”
Despite the deadline of the museum’s design looming, the play is never really about architecture, nor is it even really about the Holocaust. These topics serve merely as vehicles for the characters as they allow themselves to delve deeper into each other’s worlds, exploring each other. Christy McIntosh does exceedingly well as Linda Johansson, the not-so-naive intern who knows when to use her beauty and when to use her intelligence to get under Anton’s skin. She wants to impress and she certainly does, though perhaps not in the way she planned. It’s once we understand the nature of the relationship between the two characters that the play gets interesting: their mutual attraction feels so bizarre because it’s never really about sex; it’s all about foreplay of the mind. It’s a play about intelligence, about old wisdom versus young ideals, about whether what’s worked in the past is what the present needs. It’s so close to being a brilliantly formed idea, relevant and gripping. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the cast, the characters never come across as anything more than parodies of intellectuals.
False Solution will certainly give you a lot to think about and is a moving experience. But it seems to be a play that could benefit from a little more time marinating on the back burner.