The last time John Turturro came to play in Brooklyn, he was at his most diabolically bratty and most oddly majestic in Samuel Beckett's hilariously miserable masterwork "Endgame." The 2008 production was staged by Andrei Belgrader, the Romanian-born provocateur who taught Turturro at Yale and, since 1998, has also beguilingly directed him Off-Broadway in "Waiting for Godot" and Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard."
Here they are again, actor and director, this time having their comparably rigorous but less persuasive way with Henrik Ibsen's psychologically squishy drama "The Master Builder." Ibsen wrote the uneasily realistic and symbol-heavy mix in 1892, two years after the pinnacle of "Hedda Gabbler" and just before his hard-to-love trio of last plays.
A clue to the intent here may be found in the centerpiece of Santo Loquasto's turntable set. A tall late-19th century stove stands with ludicrous dignity within a contemporary sculpture of metal cubes. Similarly, six of the seven characters are dressed in period but the other one -- Hilde, the young muse who tears into their life saying, no kidding, "Oh, wow!" -- wears a little white sundress and a backpack.
In other words, Belgrader's cut-down version of David Edgar's jarringly conversational translation makes "Master Builder" feel shorn -- as if a big, weird, troublesome bear of a play has been given a trendy haircut. The bones are showing and the thing seems uncomfortable in its skin.
Turturro, whose best work tends to have some subtext of complicated absurdity, may not be the perfect match for Halvard Solness, the master builder whose rich contradictions of guilt, madness and grandiosity do not include a wry sliver of self-lacerating awareness. Ibsen hardly makes things lucid in a character who, deep down, believes his success has come from having wished bad things on others. Is he telepathic? Delusional? Or just a big shot with a midlife crisis who fends off the threat of youth by oppressing talent and erotically controlling pretty young things?
Katherine Borowitz (Turturro's wife and another Belgrader student at Yale) is sublimely dry as Halvard's broken wife. Kelly Hutchinson and, especially, Wrenn Schmidt, throw themselves admirably into an interpretation that leans hard, if a bit foolishly, on expressionist eroticism. And, lest we miss any symbolically significant lines, Belgrader underscores them with live piano and strings that cheapen the quality of the manipulation.