The title of Oren Safdie’s latest play refers to what a work of architecture can do to boost a city’s reputation. But the Bilbao effect, in this case, could also be a psychological condition—one that renders architects, and everyone who comes in contact with them, scarily narcissistic.
Safdie grew up in the shadow of a famous architect—his father, Moshe—and even lived, for a time, in the elder Safdie’s Habitat complex in Montreal, which has been alternately praised and pilloried. So it’s no surprise that the younger Safdie has a range of feelings about celebrated buildings, which he explores in this 90-minute production at New York City’s Center for Architecture. (The Bilbao Effect is the second part of a planned trilogy on contemporary architecture. The first, Private Jokes, Public Places, was a hit in the same space in 2003.)
The play concerns the trial of Erhard Shlaminger, a Daniel Libeskind wannabe, for violating the AIA canon that requires architects to “promote and serve the public interest in their personal and professional activities.” Shlaminger’s adversary is a Staten Island chiropractor who claims his wife was driven to suicide by the appearance of Schlaminger’s buildings in their formerly idyllic neighborhood.
Safdie could have used this setup to ask large questions about the ethical responsibilities of architects—questions the playwright, who studied architecture at Columbia University, is well-prepared to answer—but instead he chose a series of Peyton Place–like revelations about the characters’ foibles and fabrications (the architect’s mother, a drug-crazed pediatrician, ends up running around the stage with a hypodermic needle). Nuttiest of all is a former architecture critic reduced to ranting about an international conspiracy to place monstrous bits of starchitecture in dozens of second-rate cities (a conspiracy that required the critic to write only positive appraisals, except for an occasional complaint about “something trivial, like functionality”).
In the end, a model, built by Safdie to resemble a Frank(Gehry)enstein monster of a building, all jutting angles and outrageous cantilevers, is the play’s least terrifying character.
The Bilbao Effect runs through June 5. Tickets: $18. Information: 212-352-3101; 866-811-4111; www.theatermania.com