ACT’s Perloff aims Higher

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Andrew Polk (left) is Michael Friedman, Concetta Tomei (center) is Valerie Rifkind and Ben Kahre is Isaac Friedman in the world premiere of Carey Perloff’s Higher, an American Conservatory Theater production at the Theater at Children’s Creativity Museum. Below: René Augesen as architect Elena Constantine shares her work with Polk’s Michael, a renowned architect and Elena’s boyfriend. Photos by Kevin Berne

This is the season for artistic directors sharing their writing with their audiences. Tony Taccone at Berkeley Repertory Theatre has actually done it twice this season with Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup and the current Ghost Light.

Now American Conservatory Theater’s Carey Perloff is sharing her fourth full-length play as a special non-subscription production at the Theater at the Children’s Creativity Museum (formerly Zeum). In both cases, the artistic directors are making bold moves to put their work out there ̶ a brave gesture, to say the least. And they’ve both wisely handed over the directorial reins to trusted cohorts. In Taccone’s case it’s Jonathan Moscone and in Perloff’s case, it’s ACT Associate Artistic Director Mark Rucker.

The last time I saw a Perloff play it was The Colossus of Rhodes at the same theater in 2003 (directed by Perloff as well). I didn’t like that play much. It seemed an intellectual exercise in out-Stopparding Tom Stoppard. Higher is a much more satisfying and entertaining play, a drama with substance and classy soap operatics.

Perloff’s fascinating with architects is evident throughout as she follows two acclaimed designers, one at the height of his notoriety and the other just beginning hers. Unbeknownst to each other, these two architects are competing to build a memorial in Israel on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where 22 people were killed in a bus explosion.

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The two architects also happen to be lovers, spending time in hotel rooms as they cross paths on their way to building things in places like Dusseldorf and Abu Dhabi. The play leans heavily on the dramatic irony that the audience knows the lovers are also competitors long before both of them find out.

In addition to her love of the pomposity and purity of the architectural world, Perloff also seems fascinated with the idea of balancing work life and personal life and committing fully to a project (a heart thing) and just doing it to get it done (an ego thing).

Director Rucker allows the action to bounce between New York and Israel with ease (helped by the simplicity and elegance of Erik Flatmo’s set). The dramatic line is clean if at times contrived. But the substantial performances help ease the occasional strain of credulity. René Augesen is her usual marvelous self as Elena, an up-and-coming architect, a woman in what is mostly a man’s game. She’s smart and emotional and makes Elena a woman all the more appealing for all her complications.

Andrew Polk is Michael Friedman, a high-powered, world-famous architect and, if we assess him by what we see, a real asshole. He seems to really love Elena, but how much can an egomaniac really love someone? He certainly can’t handle being a responsible dad to his grown son (the charming Ben Kahre). His attitude toward memorials is, not surprisingly, all about him, just as most things end up being all about him. He has a bit of an attitude shift, but it’s not quite as believable as it should be.

The carbonation in this two-hour production comes from Concetta Tomei, an absolute delight as feisty Valerie Rifkind, a widow as smart as she is rich (and she’s extremely rich). Tomei looks fabulous in the elegant costumes by David F. Draper, and she commands the stage as easily with broad comedy as she does with subtle body language.

As the money behind the design competition, Valerie could be a sideline player relegated to turning the gears of the plot, but the character is much more interesting and, thankfully, much more present than that.

Higher holds audience interest for several reasons ̶ first, we want to see who wins the design competition; then we want to see Michael knocked off his architect celebrity pedestal. We’re satisfied on both counts, for the most part. Perloff pulls a couple punches at the end, but she remains true to her characters and makes the play ultimately more about character than plot.

[bonus interview]
All interviews should be as delightful as the one I had with Concetta Tomei, who talked about her stage and television career. Read the San Francisco Chronicle story here.


Carey Perloff’s Higher continues an extended run through Feb. 25 at the Theater at the Children’s Creativity Museum, 221 Howard St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$65. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

3 thoughts on “ACT’s Perloff aims Higher

  1. Dear Chad,
    Are you playing nice here? I saw the play. It was was YouTube instead of theatre art. Crowther and Kahre stole the show. Polk was stiff and unbelievable. Augesen wasn’t relaxed in her role. Tomei was over-the-top in her thick make-up and sleeveless gowns, which made her look cheap. The play lacked depth and substance. No arc to speak of. Crowther should have played the architect. He would have brought some passion to his work. Polk would have made a better Israeli – cocky and self-absorbed. Would you be saying these things if it wasn’t Perloff? – Rita

  2. Hi, Rita —
    No, I’m not playing nice. I did actually enjoy the show, especially Rene Augesen and Concetta Tomei. I agree about Polk — he didn’t bring much to the role, but then again I don’t think the role brought much to him.

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