THE Unbuilt City is a delicious two hander that probes away at relationships and where we end up as individuals. The things that define us and make us what we are, for better or worse.
Written by Keith Bunin, the play is built around the visit of Jonah (Jonathan Chambers) to the Brooklyn Heights’ home of Claudia (Sandra Dickinson). Jonah’s mission is to get Claudia, a socialite in her time, to sell her art collection to the university foundation he is representing. In particular, a model of a City designed by architect Graham Wilcox, someone whose brilliance Claudia once believed in and whom she loved before he took his own life.
It is a game of bluff and counter bluff as Claudia initially denies she possesses the art. Yet Jonah has come armed with a box of facts about the elderly lady that he believes will help him win the battle of wills.
Over the course of the next 75 minutes, as the bourbon flows, we learn about Claudia’s life story. How she was born into wealth – as a result of her American father making a fortune from patenting the spring once found in all ballpoint pens – then moved to Brooklyn Heights in New York (from Watford) only for her father to die in his sleep one night in Lake Como from a massive heart attack. Her mother died of grief six years later, having never come to terms with the fact that she slept through the attack.
It left Claudia living in the family house, rich and going on to spend a lifetime supporting the arts, mixing with the rich and famous. ‘I would have collected you,’ she says to the strikingly good looking (and gay) Jonah at one stage. But the pot of gold has now run out, leaving Claudia living all alone in a home with no heating and with little money to buy food.
All rather sad, a generous soul who has only ever known how to give. ‘Now everything’s vanishing,’ she says. ‘I see ghosts all the time.’ A desperate situation Jonah is keen to exploit.
Yet it is not just Claudia’s back story we learn about. Jonah, desperate to get Claudia to hand over her art, unpeels his outer shell to reveal a past dogged by broken relationships and casual sex. A writer who is struggling to make a living in New York and only does work for the university to buy himself time in order to continue putting pen to paper. He admits that getting Claudia to sell up will buy him a year of writing time.
In revealing themselves to each other, it turns initial adversaries into comrades.
Although separated by age, they come to realise that they have shared similar emotions along their life journeys – most notably heartbreak, also loneliness. Ultimately, it results in friendship rather than adversity. Life affirming. Love overcometh, whether it is love for fellow human beings or a love of places lived.
Chambers and Dickinson are quite brilliant as their characters spar and jostle for supremacy. Chambers, handsome and brimming with youth. Dickinson, a woman who has lived the life of 100 people and who expertly reflects it all in her portrayal of Claudia.
Directed by Glen Walford, The Unbuilt City is a tender play, beautifully played out by Chambers and Dickinson. Well worth catching before June 30 at the King’s Head Theatre in London’s Islington.