Glass House: New Play Explores Fascistic Modernism

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Tuesday, December 6, 2011
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Philip Johnson's Glass House at New Canaan inspired the play. (Courtesy. Ezra Stoller/ ESTO)

The Center for Architecture seems to be on a lively arts kick of late. After presenting Architect, the chamber opera about Louis Kahn just a couple of weeks ago, last Friday the Center staged a reading of Glass House, a new play by Bob Morris and produced by the Center’s Cynthia Kracauer. The show employs a premise that sounds like the start of an ethnic joke: an Arab and his Jewish wife move next door to a WASP and his black wife in an exclusive Connecticut enclave…

The very capable troupe, from left: Fajer Al-Kaisi as Anthony, Rachel Feldman as Abby, Kim Howard as Jane, and John Pallister as Tad. (Courtesy AIANY/Nicole Friedman)

The very capable troupe, from left: Fajer Al-Kaisi as Anthony, Rachel Feldman as Abby, Kim Howard as Jane, and Joe Pallister as Tad. (Courtesy AIANY/Nicole Friedman)

In the play, Anthony (Fajar Al-Kaisi), an Arab architect pretending to be of an undetermined ethnic origin, moves into his dream house from New York City with his uber-liberal Jewish wife, Abby (Rachel Feldman). Next door lives Tad (Joe Pallister), an establishment WASP, with his African American wife, Jane (Kim Howard), a Fox News aficionado whom Abby calls “the love child of Clarence Thomas and Condolezza Rice.”

Anthony is obsessed with early to mid-twentieth century design and fulfills his dream by moving into a Philip Johnson-inspired glass house. Her husband’s exacting anal-retentive design aesthetic slowly becomes the bane of Abby’s existence, as do conflicts presented by her new neighbors.

What on first glance might threaten to be a production filled with insidery design jargon, turns out to be a rather commercial endeavor with an unmistakable Broadway-striving sheen. The play’s clipped pace and pithy one-liners are as polished and accessible as this season’s hit Other Desert Cities. In the manner that Desert Cities handles politics via a family drama, Glass House handles architecture via neighborhood conflict.

Johnson's Glass House interior. (Courtesy. Ezra Stoller/ ESTO)

As it turns out, Morris was inspired by the work of Desert Cities author Jon Robin Baitz, who once told him that “all theater has a lie at its core.” The play separates several scenes with direct quotations from architects that support the same notion in architecture, as in Frank Lloyd Wright‘s comment, “The American house is a lie.” Here, the lie sits within a glass house.

In a phone interview, the playwright described the work as a “boulevard comedy,” a term used to describe a brisk, topical piece. He pointed to Yasmina Reza’s 1995 play Art as one example. Here the topic in question is architecture and all the tics that its practitioners bring to their everyday lives. As Morris is married to a design-obsessive, the play speaks with a certain level of authority. “With mid-century modernism everything is so carefully considered that it becomes a conflict,” said Morris. He even wove a few personal anecdotes drawn directly from scenes at home, particularly an amusing segment where Anthony perfectly repacks Abby’s haphazardly arranged dishwasher. In real life, Morris’s partner told him, “It hurts my feelings when you don’t load the dishwasher properly.”

AN's Bill Menking--on the aisle. (AN/Stoelker)

A packed house with AN's Bill Menking on the aisle. (AN/Stoelker)

But behind the couple’s “Modernist mailbox” and “Bauhaus bird-feeder,” rests a larger drama of secrets and lies between Abby and Anthony, which a nosy Jane strives to uncover. Anthony’s lie protects his business and social standing in a post-9/11 America. By exposing the lie the play dissects conservative mores of suburban New York while laying bare prejudices hidden within middle-class urban liberalism. While minorities Anthony and Jane guffaw at ethnic jokes, Tad and Abby react stone-faced. But later, Tad admits to enjoying the comfort of an unaltered tuna salad at the town’s clubhouse which excludes Abby and Anthony, and Abby admits to not wanting to pass by black teens on her way into a local shop. “Despite her good intentions her comfort zone doesn’t want to include a bunch of black kids hanging out in front of the deli,” said Morris.

Glass House exterior. (Courtesy. Ezra Stoller/ ESTO)

Morris, who owns a clean lined house in Bellport, Long Island, said that suburban “strongholds of historic charm” fight to maintain a way of life through appearances.  “I think that’s where architecture fails,” he said. “It calms or titillates, but that’s not the form that these darkest emotional thoughts take.”

For all the glory of Johnson’s glass house, the playwright reminds the audience that Johnson rarely spent the night there, preferring a windowless abode elsewhere on the compound. In a not so subtle manner, the author equates Johnson’s well documented Nazi sympathies of his early years to modernism itself:  “When you have an extreme interest in how things should be to be beautiful, there’s an element of fascism to it, and that can transfer to a home when dishes need to be loaded properly.”

(Courtesy. Ezra Stoller/ ESTO)

(Courtesy. Ezra Stoller/ ESTO)

 

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