Seven Questions for Oren Safdie

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.

Tell us about the character of Anton Seligman.
Anton is an architectural theorist who has made the leap from academia to being a world-class, sought after architect. He is at the pinnacle of his career, and everyone showers him with praise, and he is just about to have a show of his work on at MoMA. And yet, something is missing. He’s lost that sense of experimentation that he had when he first started out. Many of his buildings are starting to look like caricatures of themselves, and although he says he’s happy, he is having numerous doubts about his work and his decision to leave his first wife for his second. These doubts are brought to the surface by a young female architecture student who challenges him like nobody has in many years. And as it is often the people who criticize us, rather then the ones who praise us, that we listen to most, he is willing to take a risk and follow her on an unknown journey, trying to rediscover that magic that made him want to become an architect in the first place.

Two of your previous plays, Private Jokes, Public Places and The Bilbao Effect, are also about contemporary architecture. Why do you think architects make for such compelling characters on stage?
If one were to look at the line-up for characters on television, it would seem lawyers and doctors were the compelling ones. No series has ever featured an architect except maybe The Brady Bunch. But for the stage, where there is more complexity, the architect’s world is compelling because they are often complex and conflicting, the perfect dichotomy, possessing great ego but being deeply insecure. Of course this is a generalization, but it is the basis of what informs many of my characters.

What building have you encountered recently that you’ve found particularly impressive, moving, or frustrating?
One only needs to look high in the sky and see the new World Trade Center to see what architecture can’t be. It is so unsparing, and although no doubt security was a big factor, it would have been better to build nothing at all. I saw a statue of it at a tourist shop recently, and thought to myself, who was going to buy that?

What’s on your summer reading list?
I’ve been reading plays lately. Just going to the library, and checking out four or five plays a week. I feel that living in Los Angeles I am somewhat out of the loop, so I try and make up for this by keeping up with all my contemporaries. Often, I’ll pick a play I never heard of, and even if I’m really not enjoying it, I’ll try and read it to the end. Other than that, I’ve recently started reading James Salter‘s novels, dealing with fighter pilots in Korea, as well as Jackie Bridgeman‘s The Lonely Sky, which documents an American test pilot’s experiences during the 1950s.

What’s the best creative, business, or life advice you’ve received?
Jack O’Brien once said that he woke up one day to the reality that he had to do his work only for himself. It was too painful to depend on approval from others. I agree. Plus, the great actor Daniel J. Travanti recently told me that other people would always try to categorize and nail you…to the wall, that is.