Local theater is having a "women in architecture" moment. Raleigh Little Theatre is staging What We're Up Against, Theresa Rebeck's dark comedy about a female architect angrily slamming into the sexism of a field clogged with egoistic men. Meanwhile, Little Green Pig is premiering local playwright Tamara Kissane's The Master Builder—which is not, we should hasten to add, a stage adaptation of The LEGO Movie.
Instead, it focuses on Sully (Dana Marks), an architect successful enough for one-name status, who angrily slams into whatever wanders into her blast radius. If Sully steamrolled sexism to reach the pinnacle we find her wobbling on, we don't learn of it in this contemporized, gender-flipped adaptation of the 1892 play by Henrik Ibsen. But she probably did and just didn't notice. It's hard to imagine anything piercing Sully's pyrotechnic self-regard. Fame, glory, credit—she wants it all because she deserves it all, and vice versa. Her ambition is an ouroboros that crushes everything inside its compass.
"You gotta have balls. You gotta have boobies. You need both in this business."
These are the first lines spoken by Sully, a capricious control freak in a messy ponytail and a variety of vintage rock T-shirts that don't exactly scream "high-powered architect." She's building a dream home that her depressive husband, Lionel (Thaddaeus Edwards), doesn't want, contesting with unreasonable clients, and trying to maintain control of her firm, all while confronting the destabilizing Hildy (Zo Saxton), a figure from her past who shows up wearing fairy wings and an enigmatic air of childlike all-knowingness.
The ferocity of Sully's dreams has clearly overpowered Lionel, a nurturer who "has nothing to nurture, so he nurtures his own pain." Still, he's the only one allowed to call her Helen, her real name—though even this intimacy contains a tacit barb. After all, as Sully proclaims, "Helen lives inside the box, Sully outside." But Kissane leads us to see, far before Sully does, that she has it backward. When she claims she doesn't want safety, she means she doesn't think she can have it. So she builds it for others—for a price. Emotional transactions are beyond her. "Happiness is not for us," she says. "We have to settle for something else."
Under Kevin Ewert's direction, Marks is as hilarious and magnetic as usual, but the show relies a bit too much on her charisma at the expense of the development of the cast. The Master Builder teems with activity but is light on plot, with everything whirling too fast around Sully's cyclonic impulses to settle into a taut dramatic arc.
A less-than-seamless mix of absurd and realistic characters makes some things emotionally implausible or illegible. It can be as difficult for us to orient ourselves in the material as it must be for the actors, who occasionally struggled to find their rhythm in the volatile banter on Saturday night. Sully's long-suffering assistant, Kaya (Maxine Eloi), and the deer-skittish Doc (Rebecca Bossen) don't seem to occupy the same theatrical universe as the talk-show grotesque Joan (Jaybird O'Berski, delightfully garish in a magenta wig) and the bizarre character of Hildy, a plot-propelling cipher. He never becomes independently human, which is troubling because his past with Sully involves something at least adjacent to child abuse.
Like the original, Kissane's The Master Builder resists pat interpretation, but Ibsen's was essentially a very old story with a very male perspective: grand old man undone by female ingénue. By flipping those genders, Kissane opens the script for a feminist revision but leaves it more implicit than asserted. If you're expecting a clear treastise on ambition and women, not just ambition itself, you're more apt to find it in What We're Up Against.