Review: “The Place We Built” at the Flea Theater

David Roberts

  • OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic

“I like being able to define my species. And so I guess for the Seagull I don’t know anything, I’m an outside observer, but I think They found the beauty in being outside They made a place where they could define themselves.” Aisha/Nar

The thirty-something Jewish Bohemians in “The Place We Built,” currently running at the Flea Theater, who in 2001 established the Seagull (based on the true story of the Siraly) as a safe haven in Budapest gather in 2013 to decide whether they will – as ordered by the police – vacate their safe house or take a stand and hold up in the Seagull. Maria (Sonia Mena) announces to those assembled they have only 38 hours to make their decision – the decision that will change their lives forever. Do they take a stand or move on? These are the enduring and essential questions raised by Sarah Gancher in the world premiere of her high-energy, politically relevant play.

Ms. Gancher uses interviews (characters interviewing others and themselves) and flashbacks to establish exposition and to develop her characters. While these conventions clearly establish the political history of Budapest and the significant struggle of Jewish citizens to secure safety and acceptance, neither the interviews nor the multitude of flashbacks successfully develop the play’s characters as they define themselves in 2001 or in 2013 when the Seagull is shuttered “until further notice, maybe permanently.” Unfortunately, the firebrand Zoltan (Ash McNair) and his band of protestors remain shallow and flat making it difficult to care for them or for the important decisions they have to make.

 Cleo Gray (center) and the company Photo by Hunter Canning

Cleo Gray (center) and the company Photo by Hunter Canning

The cast of “The Place We Built” is uniformly competent and compelling. Danya Taymor’s direction is uneven and often leaves the cast swarming across the stage to a form a mosh pit. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set is cleverly squeezed into the Flea’s small playing space and works quite well although part of the set requires a third of the audience to twist around if it wants to see the action or face forward and listen in only. 

The strength of “The Place We Built” lies in its theme of resistance and transformation. Zoltan’s description of the zeal of the young people who gather at the closing and dismantling of the Seagull is chilling and haunting. Near the end of the play, Julia (Cleo Gray) confesses to Zoltan, “And I know the world is complicated. Everything is s**t. I don’t care. We have to keep trying. Things can change. I am changing.” 

It is this youthful penchant for chasing hope that makes “The Place We Built” engaging and relevant and worth the visit.


“The Place We Built” features The Bats: Brittany K. Allen, Lydian Blossom, Tom Costello, Brendan Dalton, Tamara Del Rosso, Philip Feldman, Kristin Friedlander, Cleo Gray, Rachel Ingram, Ben Lorenz, Ash McNair, Sonia Mena, Isabelle Pierre, Xavier Reminick, Leta Renée-Alan, and Tessa Hope Slovis. 

The creative team includes Arnulfo Maldonado (scenic design), Masha Tsimring (lighting design), Claudia Brown (costume design), Ben Truppin-Brown (sound design), Alex J. Gould (fight choreography), Zach Serafin (props master), Jocelyn Clarke (dramaturg), Charise Greene (dialect coach), Jake Beckhard (assistant director), and Tzipora Reman (stage management). Music direction and arrangements by The Bengsons. Production photos by Hunter Canning.

Performances run April 14 -  May 30 at The Flea (41 White Street between Church and Broadway, three blocks south of Canal in Tribeca). For more information, including performance times and ticket process, please visit Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes plus intermission.