You might say that actor and theater director André Gregory creates theater Boyhood-style: He and his compatriots, chief among them actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, have been known to rehearse certain plays for a decade and more, gradually building on them, revisiting them, allowing them to change shape and texture as the participants age. That’s how Gregory approached Henrik Ibsen’s 1892 chestnut The Master Builder. Over the years he and Shawn — who had retranslated the play himself, despite the fact that he knows no Norwegian — would perform the play for friends. Now, even those of us who aren’t a FOA or a FOW (Friend of André or Friend of Wallace, that is) can see what these two have been cooking up all these years: Jonathan Demme has directed a modestly scaled but potent film version of the adaptation, which hews closely to Ibsen’s original — except when it doesn’t.
Shawn plays Halvard Solness, an ace architect nearing the end of his career and his life. Solness has reached the top of his game — the very tip of its towering spire, in fact — by crushing, misleading, or manipulating the people around him. Those include the elderly architect Knut Brovik (Gregory), who once employed Solness, until the younger architect superseded him in influence and importance; Brovik’s gifted son Ragnar (Jeff Biehl), a draughtsman whose talents Solness has taken great pains to squelch; a meek secretary, Kaya (Emily McDonnell); and Aline (Julie Hagerty), Solness’s enervated wife, who has spent her adult life mourning the couple’s two children, who died in infancy. In Ibsen’s version, Solness is aging but perfectly healthy. In Shawn and Gregory’s reimagining, he’s on his deathbed, seemingly waiting to draw his last breath, until a vision appears before him, a radiant and unnervingly loopy young woman named Hilde (Lisa Joyce). She restores his enthusiasm and vigor, stroking his ego until it grows to Gherkin Building proportions. She also urges him to rethink some of the terrible choices he’s made in life.
You don’t need a high tolerance for dour Norwegians to get a kick out of A Master Builder. In fact, even if you generally deem Ibsen el-snorro (important but boring), you may get more out of this adaptation than any other. Demme, following in the footsteps of the late Louis Malle (who directed the near-legendary 1981 indie hit My Dinner with Andre, as well as the magnificent and deeply moving 1994 Vanya on 42nd Street, Gregory and Shawn’s reimagining of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya), takes a spare, direct approach to the material. His economy pays off in quiet eloquence. And Shawn, with his trademark two-tooth smile, is marvelous: One minute, his Solness is a cheerful gnome, happily toting up his life’s achievements as if they were fat gold coins. The next, he’s a sour gremlin, unrepentant for all the damage he’s caused. He’s mercurial to the max, a Solness who’s treacherous but not soulless.