This is a disappointing play from the talented American writer Keith Bunin, who so impressed last year with The Busy World Is Hushed at the Finborough Theatre. The Unbuilt Cityis a two-hander featuring an academic trying to acquire the archive of an aged philanthropist. The plot is too low-stakes to engage, the characters too predictable to excite and, although the play has plenty of ideas, none is sufficiently explored.
The scenario has echoes of Henry James’ The Aspen Papers. And, like James’ novella, this is a cerebral affair. The archives treasure consists of a plan for a utopian New York. The poetic potential of such idealism is interesting, and the excitement about the famous ‘paper architect’ of the plan is conveyed effectively. Along the way, we ruminate on inequality, history and memory, with some lyrical moments and a strong sense of what it’s like to love a city. But the play gets bogged down in its fireside wisdom, displaying a sentimental streak that’s lazy and results in platitudes.
Many faults could be excused if the characters convinced. While I found the dialogue credible for such an erudite couple, their rapport is minimal and poorly developed. Jonathan Chambers plays struggling writer Jonah with his heart on his sleeve, robbing us of what little tension is written for the role. Sandra Dickinson has a more interesting part as the heiress Claudia and there are moments when she is moving. She seems severely hampered by her costume, which could be easily remedied. More seriously, the character is again played as too likeable, so her reminiscing seems sweet and something to indulge rather than consider seriously.
It’s hard to believe Claudia wants, let alone needs, to be “three or four steps ahead” of Jonah in negotiations over her estate. Bunin calls a ceasefire before a battle of wills even begins. Director Glen Walford aims to remedy the play’s static quality, understandably, but her efforts fail. The delivery is rushed in an effort to generate energy and the cast roams about the cramped stage inexplicably. It all makes for an uncomfortable production of a floundering script.
Neil McPherson’s programming consistently brings exciting plays to London, and his venue has another European premiere to boast about. Keith Bunin’s piece has the surprisingly contemporary scenario of a Church minister encouraging a gay relationship for her son. From this starting point, there is a sensitive and intelligent examination of relationships and religion that makes it easy to see why the play was acclaimed off-Broadway.
Kazia Pelka plays Hannah, a scholar and woman of the cloth, who is working on a book about a newly discovered gospel with the help of her assistant, Brandt. The potential for a new perspective on religion enthuses Hannah but is delivered by the play itself rather than any fictional manuscript. Bunin’s key achievement is to make the theological discussion fresh and interesting. The text is aided by Pelka’s calm delivery and the patience of director Paul Higgins – there’s a lot to think about here and we are given time to follow the arguments. It’s interesting and never heavy handed.
The illness of Brandt’s father provides an emotional backdrop for a practical discussion of faith that is impressively clear sighted, while allowing Mateo Oxley to shine with a heart-breaking performance. At the same time, his burgeoning relationship with Hannah’s son, Thomas, is depicted with an understated affection. Here, both Oxley and Michael James create a great sense of chemistry and inculcate our sincere hope that their romance will work out.
Bunin stumbles slightly with this final character of Thomas, whose mental instability proves a distraction. James’s considerable charisma keeps us watching this unappealing twentysomething, but such callow eccentricity is trying. The weaker characterisation is, arguably, a price worth paying for a twist here. It’s this doubting Thomas who turns out to be the intolerant one. Hannah isn’t a saint – their relationship, “twisted in knots”, is depicted with such meticulous detail it becomes painful to watch. But the inflexibility comes from the demands of youth, leading to a fraught denouement that makes the play one of those rare pieces that subtly challenges an audience to change its mind.