The Unbuilt City, King’s Head Theatre

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by Laura Kressly

Claudia is a reclusive collector whiling away the time in her Brooklyn Heights townhouse overlooking the East River and lower Manhattan. Jonah is a young writer day jobbing for his old university’s academic archives. He’s been sent to see if Claudia has a priceless item, long thought lost, hidden away in her home. As her life approaches it’s midnight hour, she is desperate to cling to the last thing that gives her some power and Jonah is desperate to win this commission which would financially secure his immediate future.

This head-on battle of wills and money establishes a breeding ground for tension and conflict but instead, Keith Bunin’s script is rife with stilted dialogue, untenable moments and an anti-climactic end. It sounds like it’s set in the 50s, but references to Claudia’s heyday in the 70s and 80s place the action firmly in the present. It could work for the elderly Claudia, but the much younger Jonah uses similarly stuffy, poetical phrasing. Several plot points are either totally or partially unrealistic with odd transitions, and the ending is set beyond what is its natural cut-off. The actors struggle to make these moments convincing as well.

Despite some major flaws in the script, parts of the story are intoxicating. The idea that a famed architect, now dead and forgotten, built a scale model of his dreams for the whole of the five boroughs is catnip to New Yorkers, many of whom are obsessed with architecture and real estate. That this model, the Unbuilt City and his life’s work, is rumoured to be hidden away somewhere is crack to those interested in New York’s history.

Another problem arises in the direction and the design when Claudia reveals the Unbuilt City. The small cardboard model lacks the detail and scale that the text gives it, and as the pair discuss various geographic location on the model, they are often totally inaccurate. Washington Square Arch is pointed to as being next to the Empire State, New York Harbour is put in the East River and Brooklyn Heights is in Manhattan – amongst other glaring errors. Only Manhattan is present in the prop that is supposed to be worthy of 12 storage boxes and contain the whole of the city, so the scene, though poignant in its dialogue, is lazily directed and glaring in its lack of accuracy.

There are definitely some nice ideas at work here, but the dramaturgical execution is pretty poor. Unbelievable dialogue and tenuous narrative events are too big to be held up by the story and concept.

The Unbuilt City runs through 30 June.

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