The Unbuilt City – King’s Head Theatre, London

Writer: Keith Bunin

Director: Glen Walford

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

In a chilly New York townhouse, graduate student Jonah (Jonathan Chambers) calls upon Sandra Dickinson’s reclusive socialite Claudia. His university is interested in acquiring her art collection for their archives – but as she has never shown her pieces to anyone, nobody is entirely sure what it is worth.

And the measurement of worth – of property, and of the personal – is one of the themes of Keith Bunin’s one-act play. For Jonah, the potential commission he will earn from the sale is a year of subsistence, which would allow him to write, and so Claudia argues that her collection’s true value can be measured by what he does with that year.

That such worth may be measured in the potential of Jonah’s work plays to Bunin’s other theme, solidified in the one piece of Claudia’s collection that the university is eager to get hold of – a model of a New York, streamlined and redesigned, rumoured to have been constructed by a reputed architect whom a younger Claudia championed.

The badinage between Chambers and Dickinson, bouncing between combative and compassionate, is the best part of Bunin’s script. As Claudia slowly opens up about her heritage and family background, as Jonah reveals the love and relationships that have come to dominate his New York life, the characters do begin to feel warm and revealing.

It’s helped that the warmth and charisma that Dickinson naturally exudes fits the piece so well. Even in her prickliest moments, Claudia feels every inch the faded party girl. Director Glen Walford has her often make eye contact wit the audience while relating some of her life story, as if she is used to holding court among large throngs even as she speaks to this one young man. It’s an effect which is actually lessened by Chambers’ Jonah attempting the same technique.

And it is a lack of attention to detail which holds this play back the most. Both actors stumble across lines in ways that, one feels, they may not do later in the run: it feels like neither quite has the command on the script just yet, but that they are just a few more days’ rehearsal away from doing so. Similarly, Erin Green’s design – a nondescript pink curtain and a white dresser – evokes nothing of the rundown limestone townhouse that is supposedly Claudia’s Brooklyn Heights home.

The model, when it emerges, is fine and detailed, a contrast to the rest of the production. As a symbol of unfulfilled potential, though, the power of its metaphor was probably not intended to be such a judgement on the play itself.

Continues until 30 June 2018 | Image: PND Photography

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