Very early in Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Dutch-language production of The Fountainhead (at BAM through December 2), its hero accidentally torpedoes the whole evening’s effort. Howard Roark (Ramsey Nasr) is scolding his fellow architecture student Peter Keating (Aus Greidanus Jr.), mocking the “lesser” man’s admiration for the Parthenon. The column-fluting is, Roark complains, vestigial — necessary when the Greeks were carving out of wood, but meaningless on a marble structure. He intones: “What can be done with one thing can not be done with another.” Whoopsy daisy! Aren’t we at Ivo Van Hove’s theatrical adaptation of Ayn Rand’s book? Roark would burst a vein.
And for once, Roark would be right. Simply embodying Rand’s objectivist fairytale has rendered it ridiculous. The Fountainhead tells the super-heated tale of misunderstood genius architect Roark, his fraught romance with design-critic Dominique Francon (Halina Reijn), and his various struggles against more mediocre minds as he tries to get his Frank Lloyd Wright–ian designs built. Dominique is such an idealist that she would rather humiliate herself in a series of loveless marriages than watch Roark be humbled by a world that doesn’t deserve him. And Roark is just as self-destructively fundamentalist — compromise galls him so much that he’d rather blow up a building than see it rise with changed geometries.
For those who enjoy Rand’s books, this hysterical individualism has a kind of narcissistic swagger. But what happens when you can actually see the living people it supposedly describes? Well, then it falls completely apart. (That’s the thing about Randianism: It goes belly-up the moment it bumps into the real world.) Roark, Rand writes rather breathlessly, is all clean lines and planes, harder even than a granite cliff. Van Hove even introduces the show with this page of pseudo-erotica; he clearly finds this part of Rand compelling. But the more you inflate your rhetoric, the easier it is to pop. When, for instance, Nasr does wander onstage naked — guys, it’s not all lines and planes. He clenches his jaw tight and looks as grim as he can, but human beings have flesh. Human beings bobble.
The show is another handsome Toneelgroep outing, acted by a company that has excelled in everything from Cassavetes to Shakespeare. But for once, the Van Hove “look” cuts directly against the show’s content. Designer Jan Versweyweld’s customary smooth-modernist sets make all Roark’s pouting about not being appreciated into nonsense. We’re looking at a ravishing wood-and-glass open-plan office with room for a billboard-sized flatscreen, four musicians playing electronica and marimbas, and a sleek chaise. Modernism won. Why’re you whining, Howard?
He’s whining because the appeal of Rand has always been essentially adolescent: Her heroes strike the same tone of complaint-slash-arrogance that you find everywhere from Men’s Rights Forums to Capitol Hill these days. What’s disappointing is that Van Hove, usually such a welcome visitor, has spent an entire rehearsal process and then four hours and twenty minutes of our time indulging that awful sound. And, too, there’s an elephant in the room. For those who don’t know, Howard kicks off his relationship with Dominique by raping her. She loves it, cries Rand. But surely an artist ought at least throw some doubt on that? Be a bit equivocal about the fun aspects of rape? No. Here their encounter is filmed and projected (by designer Tal Yarden) in what looks like night-vision infrared, a little extra effort at titillation. Reijn gasps in pain and then reaches out in post-assault, lust-struck desperation. It’s unwatchable.
There are hints here and there that a production of The Fountainhead might be possible, but only if it contained more of a countervailing perspective. The final moment, actually, points at such a thing. As Roark makes his case for selfishness yet again, the rest of the cast stands far upstage nearly still. Every now and then, one will raise a hand and the music will change. Unobserved, the company seems to be playing a gigantic theremin, the group making something lovely while the individual monologues on. It’s the first moment that the show puts forth a non-Rand point of view, and, tellingly, it’s a good one. Some of the greatest actors in the world — Hans Kesting, Frieda Pittors — are back there being ignored. Based on the premise of the book and the production, maybe that’s the only argument Van Hove would accept as a critique. You shouldn’t waste talent.