05/22/2013 01:43 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2013

First Nighter: "The Master Builder" Slightly Less Than Masterful, "Murder Ballad" Kills

Santo Loquasto's set at BAM's Harvey for Henrik Ibsen's undoubtedly most challenging, yet ultimately intriguing, play, The Master Builder, is one of the most stunning in a long career that happens to be distinguished by many stunning sets. Occupying stage center on a turn-table is a tall three-dimensional metal grid that looks as if it might have been dreamed up by Sol Lewitt. The main difference between Lewitt's works and the Loquasto construction is that the latter is tilted at a perilous angle. Upstage of it is what looks like a section of a high wood-paneled wall, and it, too, is tilted.
The instant the environment is sighted--there's no curtain, as there rarely is in this space--it registers as as brilliant metaphor for title character Halvard Solness (John Turturro), a man of strong will but now at a point in his life when he is dangerously listing.
He's thrown more off-center when 23-year-old Hilde Wangel (Wrenn Schmidt)--who might as well be called wangle--insinuates herself into the household-cum-office he shares with wife Aline (Katherine Borowitz) on whom he habitually cheats, office assistant Kaja Fosil (Kelly Hutchinson) with whom Halvard is currently dallying and Kaja's fiance and Solness's oppressed apprentice Ragnar Brovik (Max Gordon Moore).
Master builder Solness--currently putting finishing touches on an elaborate tower-decorated home in which Aline couldn't be less interested--should be satisfied with his celebrated career but isn't. He's mortally fearful of being eclipsed by younger wannabes. Ironically, when he expresses this gnawing concern aloud, Hilde arrives.
Ostensibly, she's come as a lover of his work--especially a tower he built in her now abandoned hometown--but as she increasingly has him in her thrall and even persuades him to approve drawings for young Brovik's independent project, her motives become increasingly cloudy. They're fully exposed when the new Solness home with its complimentary leaning tower is revealed during Ibsen's throttling denouement--which in David Edgar's effectively trimmed adaptation comes sooner rather than later. Incidentally, I wonder about Edgar's having Hilde tell Halvard rather anachronistically, "You don't get it."
The Master Builder is, of course, Halvard's play, although Turturro only achieves mixed results. Directed often by Andrei Belgrader to stand at the edge of the stage peering up into the distance, this Halvard seems to be gazing at a frightening future--a future, presumably, marked by a long parade of superceding master builders.
Turturro's gaze is intense to a fault. Unsurprisingly. intensity is a major component of his entire performance. The problem is that Turturro--not for the first time--gives the impression of being too aware of his powers. He seems pleased with them, and as a result, overplays them. He could use a bit of forgetting how good he is at this aspect of his masterfully built technique and just concentrate on Halvard's enervating dilemma.
While the amusingly sinister original music by Christian Frederickson and Ryan Rumery and played by them successfully pursues its effects, as does James F. Ingall's lighting, the rest of the cast does admirably.
Schmidt--alternately blithe and menacing and appearing to play up her own acting eccentricities--keeps Hilde's intentions a lively guessing game. The bemused, barely tolerant smile with which Borowitz (wearing costumer Marco Piemontese's beautiful floor-length dresses) says everything needed to be said about the unhappy woman.
Moore, Julian Gamble as Ragnar's dying father and Ken Cheeseman as the family doctor and friend do well in a production that should be seen--and not simply because the play may not come this way very soon again.
Okay, musical mavens, we're in the midst of what are increasingly becoming described as "immersive" productions. Already acclaimed currently are Here Lies Love (which I left after 20 minutes; go ahead, mock me) and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (which I stayed for but only enjoyed intermittently and not for the score).
Now back and at the Union Square after its initial Manhattan Theatre Club run is Murder Ballad, which I heartily endorse--while begging that those who think these three offerings represent the inevitable musical comedy future understand the entries are only part of a trend and not the new be-all-and-end-all.
What ticket-buyers are immersed in here is the passionate triangle--possibly quadrangle--involving Sara (the absolutely striking Caissie Levy), her obsession Tom (the always throbbing Will Swenson), the homebody poet called Michael whom she marries (ever reliable John Ellison Conlee) and an unnamed narrator (the also thoroughly striking Rebecca Naomi Jones).
The band for the Julia Jordan-Juliana Nash sung-through rock opera is at one end of the reconfigured room with the narrator fronting the hot combo. Nevertheless, all four full-throated singers literally work the room--weaving in and out of the tables and bleachers while often leaping on advantageous raised surfaces and sometimes pounding on whatever is before them. These include a long bar where Sara and Tom first meet and realize they can't keep their roving hands off each other.
The Murder Ballad score really amounts to one long song that could be termed a contemporary spin on that traditional blues "Frankie and Johnny." (Curiously, the daughter Sara and Tom produce is called Frankie; is that in sly homage to the old ballad?). The words, often in rhymed couplets, serve to lay out the plot and relationships. They're not meant to stand alone as separate songs, which is fine.
And many of those lyrics are wonderfully evocative. I like Sara's claiming--I think it was Sara or maybe Tom or maybe both--that "We're two cats in a fish bowl, two dogs in a bone yard." I also like the terse comment that "It doesn't take much to die."
There's a drawback to the "immersive" approach here, however. As the four performers streak around the room, there are times when what they're singing gets lost. This may account for my not being sure how the narrator fits into their romantic configuration, if indeed she does. She seems to be saying as much as the climactic events unfold, but who knows? I don't.
Trip Cullman directs Murder Ballad, and Doug Varone choreographs. Mark Wendland designed the set--or should it be called the lay-out? The complicated lighting is by Ben Stanton (all those tricky isolated spots need illumination), and the equally daunting sound design is by Leon Rothenberg. Congrats to them, too, for facing the challenges immersion presents.