The strange and wonderful world of contemporary architecture takes center stage in False Solution, a new play that runs through Sunday at La MaMa in New York (buy tickets here). That the dialogue crackles with pitch-perfect architect-speak is no coincidence: this is the latest work by Oren Safdie. The Montreal-born, Los Angeles-based playwright is the son of architect Moshe Safdie and grew up in his father’s modular prefab marvel, Habitat ’67, before making his way to Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture.
“Architecture is also still mostly a male-dominated profession,” says Safdie, “so the opportunity to write about sexual politics–one of my favorite topics–is plentiful.” False Solution takes place in the basement model-making studio of a firm led by Anton Seligman (played with brainy yet sizzling charisma by Sean Haberle), a starchitect who has landed a commission to design a Holocaust museum in Poland. He soon finds himself arguing the merits of volumes and voids with intern Linda Johnansson (Christy McIntosh), a striking know-it-all who flinches only when pressed into service at the drafting table: “It’s just at this stage of my career, I’m much more effective as a critical thinker than a generator of ideas,” says the first-year architecture student. Fortunately for theatergoers, Safdie has mastered both roles. He recently answered our questions about his career path, his new play, and why architects make for better characters on the boards than on the screen.
How did you go from studying architecture at Columbia to being a playwright (and screenwriter and director)?
In my last year at architecture school, Columbia University insisted you take a course outside your discipline. I took a playwriting course. A scene I wrote was selected in a contest juried by Romulus Linney, and received a staged reading. Once I saw my words on stage, I was hooked.
Your new play, False Solution, is about an architect’s struggle to design a Holocaust museum in Poland. How did the idea for the play develop?
I would say the kernel of the play was born when 10 years ago, I saw a figure skating event on television. One of the American skaters had donned a yarmulke and wore a sweater with a Star of David sewn on his chest. The theme he skated to: Schindler’s List. I was amazed that someone would actually try and give some kind of expression to the Holocaust. I was reminded by this several years later when I visited Libeskind‘s Jewish Museum in Berlin, where I felt the same sense of someone trying to convey the suffering through architectural expression, albeit more successfully. There were other Holocaust museums I visited, including my father‘s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem that offered an opposite approach–almost creating a non-building. It was through these difference, that I created two very different type of characters. The other influence on this play comes from my mother, who lived in hiding in Poland during the war. Many of the stories are factual, and I was interested in how, per se, her experiences have impacted my own life.