If You Can Make It There/First Artropolis, Then the World | On Culture | Chicago Reader

If You Can Make It There/First Artropolis, Then the World 

For her play about Mies van der Rohe to get noticed in Chicago, June Finfer had to take it to New York

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Chicago writer and documentary producer June Finfer was working on a video about Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House in 1999 when she began wondering what was really behind the vitriolic legal battles between its designer and its owner, Dr. Edith Farnsworth. Finfer has made several documentaries about architecture--collaborating with her husband, architect Paul Finfer--but none that raised such intriguing questions. Mies and his client, a prominent physician and researcher, had embarked on a five-year relationship in the mid-40s that produced the little glass palace on the Fox River in Plano, one of the world's most revolutionary and beautiful structures--then devolved into fury.

Problems with Farnsworth House--spiraling costs, leaky roof, a lack of closets and privacy--have become part of the legend. But it's seemed to many that they don't really explain such intense bitterness, whereas a love affair might. Finfer's husband was a student at IIT when Mies was director there, and they were acquainted with others who'd known both Mies and Farnsworth. When the documentary was done, Finfer couldn't let the story go--she kept on interviewing and plowing through archives. She found no explicit evidence, but she's convinced from everything she's heard and read that the two had a full-fledged romance. Eventually she began to write a play about the mysterious Mies, his accomplished and determined client, and two celebrated houses, the other one designed by former Mies student Philip Johnson.

An early version of The Glass House had a reading at the Art Institute in late 2001; since then it's had a workshop and three staged readings at Raven Theatre, two readings at Farnsworth House, and two at IIT. Finfer, a member of the Chicago Writers' Bloc, the Illinois Arts Alliance Board, and an alumnus of the Theatre Building's Musical Theatre Workshop, says she felt the play was ripe for production--Chicago actor John Mohrlein was a wonderful Mies and audience response was good--but "no theater in Chicago was stepping up." Then, about a year and a half ago, she talked to New York architect Kyle Bergman, who wanted to use another documentary Finfer had made about a Mies building, Tugendhat House, in an architectural film festival he was planning.

"We were chitchatting," Bergman says, "when she mentioned that she'd written a play about Mies. My brother's a director and the subject was interesting, so I said, 'Send me the script.'" Bergman read it, liked it, and passed it along to his brother, Evan (whose most recent show, Machiavelli, played off-Broadway last fall). His brother "called back in a few days and said, 'This is fucking excellent.' We optioned the play, and we've been working on it for a while with some actors here in New York." On April 9 and 10 the brothers Bergman staged two readings, one at Lincoln Center's Rose Theatre and the other at the 59E59 theater complex. They'd invited friends and acquaintances from their respective fields, so the seats were full of architects and theater folk. Finfer noticed a man behind her taking a lot of notes. When she commented on it, he said he might be writing something.

The note taker was architecture critic Paul Goldberger, and his warmly admiring piece, "Sex and Real Estate," ran in the April 30 New Yorker. Goldberger notes that the last play about an architect that ventured from Chicago to New York--Frank's Home, written by Richard Nelson and produced last year by the Goodman--got a miserable reception. A hot ticket in Chicago despite its sluggish script and interminable central monologue (suckers that we are for anything Wright-ish), Frank's Home was panned by New York Times critic Charles Isherwood as "ill-conceived," a "dreary drama . . . unrelentingly dour and lacking in either thematic or narrative shape." Its run last February was short. But Goldberger predicts a better future for The Glass House, which he describes as "a play about architecture only in the sense that A Streetcar Named Desire is a play about public transit." According to Goldberger, Finfer's play "explores the romantic relationship between a female client and a male architect that merely happens to have, at its center, one of the most famous houses in history."

Kyle Bergman says the play's also about the relationship between Mies and his onetime student and colleague Philip Johnson, who was privy to the Farnsworth plans and completed a strikingly similar glass house for himself in Connecticut before Mies could even get construction under way. A drama in two acts with four characters--Mies's longtime lover, Lora Marx, is the fourth--The Glass House is set in both the Mies and Johnson homes, Bergman says, and has "a really interesting arc."

Since the reading, Bergman says, they've had calls from a number of theaters, including the Goodman: "We're looking at our options. We'll probably do a workshop somewhere with a developmental theater company." It would be "good to do it in Chicago--such a great architecture and theater town," Bergman says, but the "goal is to be in the right chute to eventually bring it back to New York." (His film festival is, for the moment, on the back burner.) Finfer says that after the reading she was "absolutely in a daze with the response. They were so positive. That was so nice after being told several times with earlier versions, 'Thanks, but no thanks.'

"There's a line in my play, when Mies comes to teach in Chicago. Philip Johnson offers him an exhibit in New York at the Museum of Modern Art for 1947, just his work, and Mies says, 'Well, I'm really busy.' And Johnson says, 'But it's on the east coast, where reputations are made.' That's kind of ringing true for me. I'm saying this as nicely as I can. It's very hard until you get noticed. It's too early to tell what'll happen--there's a lot of luck involved in all this. But since this reading and the article, there's a lot more interest in my play."

First Artropolis, Then the World

Art Chicago heated up last weekend with the news that its owner of one year, the Merchandise Mart, is in the process of acquiring two other art fairs. One is Volta, a satellite of Art Basel founded three years ago by Chicago dealer Kavi Gupta and two European partners. The other is New York's Armory Show, the biggest (if no longer the hottest) contemporary art fair in America. Founded in 1994 as the Gramercy International Art Fair by owners Matthew Marks and Paul Morris, the Armory Show this year featured 150 select dealers and had attendance of 52,000 and sales of $85 million--both all-time highs. Armory director Katelijne De Backer says the Mart wants to use the experienced Armory team as advisers to the other fairs while each "keeps its own niche and identity."

The Mart reports that 41,500 people attended Art Chicago, the International Antiques Fair, and three official satellite art shows. Word is that sales were OK but not great and top-tier out-of-town collectors remained elusive. Still, there was a positive buzz about the scene--a hopeful sense that this could be the start of something big.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jine Finfer photo/Robert Drea.


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