There’s a moment in Aurora Theatre Company’s production of “The Monster-Builder” in which the title character – one of the world’s top architects – is struck by inspiration: the central feature of his next large-scale project, he announces, will be modeled on a part of the human anatomy unmentionable in polite society.
Rampant ambition, bad-taste buildings and the people who make them get skewered in Amy Freed’s funny, freewheeling comedy, which borrows part of its title from Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” – another play that featured a self-deluded, ego-driven architect.
Ibsen is just one of the building blocks employed by San Francisco-based Freed, whose earlier hits include “Restoration Comedy” and “You, Nero.” Here, the playwright draws on sources as diverse as “Faust,” “Macbeth” and the Bauhaus movement to show the ways Modernism creates monsters.
Her architect, Gregor, is a self-described “visionary futurist” who lives in a glass house of his own design, sleeps on a marble slab made by Walter Gropius and calls his kitchen “the feeding and forage area” (Tom Buderwitz’s set revels in sharp angles and cold surfaces).
Gregor has it all — fame, commissions, and a trophy wife with no sense of history. But he naturally wants more. When young designers Rita and Deiter come to dinner with happy news – they’re in line for a contract to restore a revered heritage boathouse – Gregor uses his contacts to steal the project out from under them, with the intention of razing the landmark building.
Freed structures the first half as a conventional comedy, but the second half lifts off into something wonderfully surreal. As Gregor’s polished veneer peels away like cheap siding, the depths of his rapacious ambition emerge in one ghastly revelation after another.
The shifts in tone require fine-tuned performances, and director Art Manke, who staged the play’s world premiere last year in Portland, Oregon, gets the best from Aurora’s cast.
Danny Scheie’s wheedling voice and compact stature are just right for the overbearing Gregor. Sierra Jolene is delightful as the dim-bulb Tamsin, and Tracy Hazas is aptly steely as Rita. Thomas Gorrebeeck never quite finds a character – or an accent – for Deiter, but he delivers his pivotal Act 2 monologue with flair. Veteran actors Nancy Carlin and Rod Gnapp are ideal as Pam and Andy, the crass, kitsch-loving clients who bring wads of cash – and a surprise twist – to the table.
Freed keeps all the balls in the air right up to the hilarious coda. “The Monster-Builder” is a laugh riot, but it’s also a rare theatrical creation – a rollicking satire with something to say.
Where: Aurora Theatre Co., 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. most Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturdays; closes Dec. 6
Tickets: $32 to $50
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org