Courtesy photoComplex couple: René Augesen and Andrew Polk bring their characters to life in “Higher.”

Courtesy photoComplex couple: René Augesen and Andrew Polk bring their characters to life in “Higher.”

Dense drama, emotions in ‘Higher’

“How can you honor the dead if you have no faith?” demands Isaac, the gay, born-again-Jewish son of an architect, Michael.

Insists Michael, “I know how to encapsulate grief!”

Workaholic Dad, famous for building memorials, has left his heritage so far behind that he never circumcised his son, much to Isaac’s everlasting chagrin.

That phrase — “encapsulate grief”— appears more than once in American Conservatory Theater Artistic Director Carey Perloff’s new play, “Higher,” now premiering at ACT’s second stage under Mark Rucker’s generally smooth direction.

Religious differences are not the only issue in Perloff’s intellectually and emotionally dense two-act drama, nor is the clash between guilt-ridden, neglectful father and resentful son the only conflict.

There’s the conflict between Michael and Elena, the architect of Greek background whom he loves. He wants more together time; she’s busy struggling to establish herself in a traditionally male field.

And unbeknownst to either of them (a cliché contrivance that nevertheless pays off in the end), they’re competing for an important gig: a memorial in Israel at a site where a busload of Jews were killed by terrorists.

Which presents another potent issue: Some consider the site, by the Sea of Galilee, to be holy ground. Would a memorial erected there, no matter how sensitively designed, be a desecration?

Two more characters add to the complications: Valerie (Concetta Tomei), the wealthy American widow who is funding the memorial, and Jacob, a young Israeli who is also guiding the project.

The most involving relationship is the one between Elena (ACT company member René Augesen) and Michael (Andrew Polk). That’s partly because their acting is so visceral and immediate.

But it’s also because two of the sets of relationships — between father and son (Ben Kahre), and between Elena and the grief-stricken Jacob (Alexander Crowther) who provides Elena with inspiration for her design — are parallel in unfortunate ways.

Just as Isaac accuses and nags his father for a variety of reasons, so too does Jacob initially lecture and harass Elena; Kahre and Crowther are unable to transcend the repetitive, wearysome negativity.

Also, Tomei portrays the lonely, autocratic widow with such self-conscious and awkwardly theatrical physicality that every scene she’s in rings false. It’s an odd oversight by Rucker, whose direction is normally fine-tuned.

Although Perloff has written too many short scenes, which makes for an overall choppiness, “Higher” is an intriguing look at the innate symbolism of architecture and the unique ways architects view the world.

If you go

Higher

Presented by American Conservatory Theater

Where: Children’s Creativity Museum, 221 Fourth St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 19  

Tickets: $10 to $65

Contact: (415) 749-2228,www.act-sf.org

American Conservatory TheaterartsCarey Perloffentertainment

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