By Jim Rutter
FOR THE INQUIRER
Architects and writers both begin with a blank page and an idea. Jon Marans’ theatrically ambitious but overwrought A Raw Space, now receiving a stilted world premiere at Bristol Riverside Theatre, started with a solid if unoriginal concept: a woman spurring men to jealous competition for her affection and approval.
While the title refers to one of Richard Meier’s “raw space” Manhattan high-rises, this plot drives many of Shakespeare’s plays. Marans acknowledges his debt by alluding to Macbeth on multiple occasions and quoting Henry IV at length.
But when the Bard borrowed, he repaid with sonorous language and achingly real characters. Marans, by contrast, presents a pair of pretentious, unlovable married couples spouting lines too embarrassing to repeat. Heiress Susu (Anette Michelle Sanders) married architect Mark (Keith Baker) for his talent, only to find him consigned to designing the windows on skyscrapers. Susu’s estranged friend Brenda (Madi Distefano) fared better, snagging swaggering starchitect Rod (Jack Koenig). Since Susu can't stand Brenda's happiness and longs to snap her husband out of his artist's block, she proposes a contest: Mark and Rod will compete to design the interior of their open-floorplan condo.
Marans conflates the competition with conflicting motivations, underdeveloped back stories, loosely integrated themes (some biblical) and lines filled with faux passion, most of them borne by Baker, who curses a pair of pillars as “two giant hard penises” (seriously). The language ranges from tedious to laughable: Mark and Rod trade quotes by Le Corbusier and Lewis Mumford; later, Mark whines “but I’m so horny,” accompanying his complaint with a toro strut and hands pantomiming bull horns. It doesn’t help Baker’s cause that he looks decades older than his castmates.
Susan Atkins’ direction can’t navigate between the lines of heightened theatricality and grounded reality. Overlaps in location flow seamlessly, but the temporal and emotional shifts confuse, particularly in the final scene, when no lighting cue helps delineate the sudden appearance of all four characters in the same room.
Unlike most buildings, Marans’ play wants to serve too many ends. Only set designer Roman Tatarowicz has grasped the fundamental principle of elegant simplicity, transforming Bristol Riverside’s stage into a striking, Meier-inspired palace of an apartment. A trio of columns supports interlocking slabs, all of which sparkle a pristine white and glow in the azure and amber hues of Ryan O’Gara’s lighting. The designers, at least, provided a foundation worth building upon.
Through Feb. 19 at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol. Tickets: $30-$50. Information: 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org>