The Unbuilt City at the King’s Head Theatre

Meghan Philips reviews the European premier of The Unbuilt City, a new play by Keith Bunin.

The King’s Head Theatre is the first pub theatre founded since Shakespeare’s time, but it also prides itself on supporting artists “on the fringe” in two ways: by paying its performers a living wage and giving them a platform to develop their work. The European premiere of The Unbuilt City stays true to this ethos as it showcases the new play written by Keith Bunin and keeps the production minimalist to prioritize fair wages for the cast and creative team.  The set is simple: a wing back chair, a hardback chair, an empty frame intended to represent a window, a lamp, and a sideboard all atop a small oriental area rug, items one could find in any home, but all chosen to reflect a small room inhabited by an elderly woman in Brooklyn, New York.  The only visually interesting piece is the sideboard, from which the mirror has been removed so as to not awkwardly reflect the audience or light during the lighting changes, which were used strangely to add cheap drama to monologues about the characters’ past. The only effective use of lighting was when the characters discuss the sun-setting, partially to show the passage of time and to discuss how the light hits the title object of the play: the model of ‘The Unbuilt City.’

            It is this model, a redesign of New York City, that brings the play’s two characters, Claudia (Sandra Dickinson) and Jonah (Jonathan Chambers) together. Jonah, a representative for an archive, is sent to Claudia’s Brooklyn home with the task of documenting her personal collection and persuading her to sell it so his employer can make her an offer for the lot. But Jonah also has a secret mission to see if ‘The Unbuilt City,’ what his employer thinks is the only piece of true worth in her collection, even exists. ‘The Unbuilt City’ was created by Claudia’s lover, an architect whose career, like many other artists, she supported and “collected” into her Brooklyn house,. He was an artistic genius whose goal was to re-design New York City so it accommodated both rich and poor, reduced motor vehicle traffic, and made the city a more pleasant place to live, work, and shop. Sadly, upon finishing his re-design, he packed up the model into twelve boxes, had them mailed to Claudia, and took his own life.

Sandra Dickinson in The Unbuilt City. Photograph: PND Photography

It is this plot point that resonated most, especially considering the recent suicides this week of two other talented artists: Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. As Jonah and Claudia attempt to build rapport with each other so Jonah can convince Claudia to sell and Claudia can discern if Jonah is worthy of the subsequent commission he would earn from securing it, the characters address several other themes including:  the sacrifices immigrant parents make for their children, the pitfalls and joys of being in love, ghosts of one’s past, the challenges of having too much or not enough money, and most of all, the dynamism and greatness of New York City. While all timeless, the exploration of these themes almost seem to be just a tick of the box instead of coming across as genuine. This impression is further underlined by the strange use of direct audience address. During monologues in which the characters tell each other stories about their pasts, they unnaturally stand up and face the audience, instead of interacting with each other.

            Additionally, the actors, particularly Dickinson, seemed uncomfortable with the unnatural dialogue and monologues, partly because the vocabulary is complex and sometimes unbelievable, but it also might have been due to some opening night jitters or the fact that when you have a two-person play, it is much more obvious when you trip over or forget a line.  In fact, Jonathan Chambers mixed up the order of one of the best lines; his character talks about how he works for the archive to earn money to support his writing career so unlike the adage, time is money, for him money is time to write and live so he has something interesting to write about. However, Chambers, perhaps because he was used to the adage, he initially said “time is money.”  Despite this, there are glimmers of believability when Chambers tells his life story using the model of “The Unbuilt City” by pointing out the location of the milestones or when Dickenson clearly enjoys telling a raunchy story about Claudia’s university’s avant-garde theatre group. 

            In short, while it was a pleasure to see a new play, and the actors and the creative team of the King’s Head Theatre, led by director, Glen Walford,work to bring it to life, hopefully, this month’s run of the play will allow the actors to become more comfortable and make the characters their own.  In other words, there is still building to be done. 


The Unbuilt City will be at the King’s Head Theatre until the 30th June, 2018.

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