Not So Lonely at the Top: John Turturro Scales Great Heights in the Service of Ibsen

Director Andrei Belgrader gives us a gutsier 'Master Builder'

Turturro. (Getty Images)
Turturro. (Getty Images)

At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, once a night, John Turturro has been climbing a steeple. To a quiet drumbeat, he goes hand over hand up the side of a tilting house, and when he reaches the top, he does not beat his chest like King Kong.

“I’m just trying to be careful,” he said last week.

His wife and friends watch from below, panicked and exhilarated, and the audience feels the same, joined together for a few minutes in the timeless tension of wondering whether or not a man is going to fall.

This finale of Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder, which opened May 19 at BAM and plays there through June 9, is not exactly as Ibsen wrote it. In the original, the master builder of the title, Halvard Solness, climbs his tower off-stage, his progress relayed by those below, with thrilling dialogue like, “He climbs and climbs. He will soon be at the top now.” For this stripped-down production, director Andrei Belgrader puts the tower on stage, and keeps the worst of Ibsen’s dialogue off it. Five years ago, in BAM’s Endgame, Mr. Belgrader and Mr. Turturro were praised for finding unexpected humor in Beckett, and here they have worked a similar miracle: wringing life from one of the dreariest playwrights in the canon. This is a Master Builder for the gut, not the mind.

“I don’t know if we’re getting it right,” said Mr. Turturro, “but if we can keep people awake … Andrei doesn’t approach things from a very sacred point of view. He doesn’t really like intellectual theater, from the neck up kind of stuff. Andrei’s productions usually have—whether you like them or not—some kind of life.”

So, just what is that builder doing on top of his building? In the early 1890s, Solness is the most famous designer in the country—BAM executive producer Joseph V. Melillo likened him to today’s “starchitects”—but he feels his talent slipping. To prove he’s still got it, he embarks on an affair with a young admirer.

The steeple-climbing stunt is meant to impress her, but it’s also quite a bit more—a challenge to god, an attempt to do the impossible. These themes, as lofty as the builder’s steeple, had Mr. Turturro reaching for comparisons to Alice in Wonderland, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

“It’s about age, it’s about condition,” he said. “And also, how you stay viable as times change. Obviously, that’s different for every person—even a person that doesn’t have any tragedy in his life.”

Written by Ibsen during—you guessed it!—an affair with a young admirer, the play is littered with symbolism, making it less like the kitchen-sink drama of A Doll’s House and more like what Mr. Belgrader called Ibsen’s “fairytale-y, poetical” plays.

“There’s lot of interesting textual stuff and myth stuff and death stuff,” he said, “and those things are of great influence to most people, I would say. That’s where I’m trying to go with it.”

Mr. Belgrader, who taught Mr. Turturro at Yale and has worked with him often since, thinks of Ibsen as a great poet trapped within the “very poor” theatrical conventions of his time. He compared him to Chekhov, whose theatricality was often smothered by the Stanislavskian naturalism of the day. The social realism that ruled Scandinavian theater in the late 19th century, he said, “has some value, but it wasn’t the best key to help Ibsen find things.”

“So I completely ignored the stage directions as regards the set, which would make heavy, endless furniture and doors—all sorts of things which I have no interest in—and I try to go for the story. Fairly faithfully, I believe.”

Instead of endless furniture and doors, Mr. Belgrader has placed his actors in a revolving steel sculpture that only lightly suggests the Solness house. Built by Santo Loquasto, who recently worked with Mr. Belgrader and Mr. Turturro in a critically lauded Classic Stage Company production of The Cherry Orchard, it is a dreamy space—the sort of modern set that heightens the action, rather than distracting from it. (The eye-grabbing, unapologetically phallic steeple does not appear until the play’s final moments.) The set, said Mr. Belgrader, “takes it to a different place.

“It works on senses. It’s not an intellectual something—which is, by the way, the other thing with Ibsen. If you stay on the intellectual, or so-called academic level, it gets boring.”

It’s the story that appeals to Mr. Turturro, who performed scenes from the play at Yale, and mentally bookmarked it as something he might like to star in when he was of the appropriate age. The son of a builder who supervised the development of hotels and apartment complexes in Manhattan, Mr. Turturro grew up in and around construction sites. Entranced by “the ferocity of that world,” he used it as the backdrop for the first movie he wrote and directed, Mac.

“I think there’s a lot of wonderful stories about people who built things,” he said. “Usually, in movies, it’s always about things being blown up. Maybe it’s too expensive to show something being built.”

For this builder’s son, The Master Builder is about “the cost of what you pay to accomplish something”—a problem every artist deals with, and one he watched his father struggle with on every job.

“If you make anything,” he said, “there’s always a battle, because everyone wants it the way they want it, whatever it is, a dress, a house. Anything.”

After the success of Endgame, BAM was happy to let Mr. Belgrader stage his play however he saw fit. Concerning most translations of Ibsen’s work, the director said “practically no human beings talk like that,” so the first step was finding a version of the text that was easy on the ears. They settled on an elegant, idiomatic translation by David Edgar, which, Mr. Melillo said, “has sections that I would refer to as being poetic.

“I think there’s no archness in the writing.”

Though there’s no archness in Mr. Edgar’s text, there is humor, most of it coming from an unlikely source: Halvard’s emotionally crippled wife, Aline. In most translations, Aline is flat, weak, and so completely unaware of her husband’s dalliances as to seem stupid. But Katherine Borowitz worked with Mr. Belgrader to humanize Aline, imbuing her with a pained sarcasm that makes her both funny and tragic. It is a blistering performance, and Ms. Borowitz made it possible, she said, by “trying not to be too intellectual about it.

“Andrei’s really good at finding original approaches. He’s very decent and helpful and you can count on him for a really good sexual metaphor for anything he’s trying to explain. Nothing you can print.”

Ms. Borowitz, who also happens to be married to Mr. Turturro, said she likes having the chance to spend more time with her husband, who when he isn’t climbing steeples is doing post-production on his new movie, Fading Gigolo, in which he stars alongside Woody Allen.

“He’s been working harder than ever before,” she said, “so I don’t get to see him much. There’s not much time when we’re home, so it’s nice to be able to occupy the same space while we’re at work.”

Although he directed his wife in 2011’s Relatively Speaking, an evening of one-acts on Broadway, Mr. Turturro has not acted alongside Ms. Borowitz in years. “It’s a real advantage,” he said, “it fills out the play.”

That fullness, of course, is the whole point of Mr. Belgrader’s approach—the happy irony of which is that, by discarding Ibsen’s realism, he achieves something real.

“It’s a bear of a play,” Mr. Turturro said. “You really have to try to get underneath it. And if you get underneath it, then there’s something kind of human about it, even though it’s twisted. It’s almost like when people watch a car accident. It has those kinds of elements, in the play, watching all these people collide.”

Not So Lonely at the Top: John Turturro Scales Great Heights in the Service of Ibsen