LONDON -- Ian MacNeil is the designer who made his theatrical reputation by putting an Edwardian dollhouse on stilts and busting it apart.
The quake comes near the end of J.B. Priestley's "An Inspector Calls," which opens at Baltimore's Mechanic Theatre on Tuesday. Before the house falls, Mr. MacNeil unleashes all the tricks of the set designer's trade, from pouring rain onto the stage to using more fog than a heavy metal rock video. He also creates a hellish landscape of 20th-century Britain, borrowing imagery from T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" and the motion pictures "The Exorcist" and "The Third Man."
Mr. MacNeil may be a master of visual sleight of hand, but he has a down-to-earth philosophy of set design.
"Shows get the sets they deserve," he says.
"An Inspector Calls," a socialist manifesto and family drama dressed up as a drawing room mystery, gets a groundbreaker. Mr. MacNeil and his companion, director Stephen Daldry, staged the revival at the National Theater in London in 1992, and later in New York. The play has since run worldwide to packed houses and enthusiastic notices. Writing in the New York Times in May 1994, critic Vincent Canby raved that the play "has a lot of everything, but most of all it has the brilliant restless imaginations" of Mr. Daldry and Mr. MacNeil.
That's pretty heady stuff. But Mr. MacNeil, 36, the son of television broadcaster Robert MacNeil, refuses to dwell on this one monster hit.
He's currently preparing Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" for the English National Opera. The pieces of the project are scattered about the cluttered apartment Mr. MacNeil shares with Mr. Daldry in the posh Notting Hill neighborhood of London. Here a can of spray paint. There a miniature set. And over there, in the corner, for some reason, are deer antlers.
The opera will open in February. Mr. MacNeil has 45 minutes to talk. Theater consumes him.
He says his love of the stage was passed down through the genes -- his parents worked in the British theater before his father, faced with supporting a growing family, switched to journalism.
Mr. MacNeil, British born, acted some in school, but made the switch to design by attending Croydon College in London. Apprenticeships followed in New York and London. He plunged into the world of British repertory theater, banging out a dozen or more productions a year in the north of England before finally making his mark in London's main theater district, the West End.
"The joy of the British system is that you get enough shows to ride out a flop," he says. "People will allow you to make mistakes."
Still, a lot is riding on the set designer. In modern theater, 'N particularly the modern musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the set is as much a star as the female lead or the composer.
It was only a matter of time until someone like Mr. MacNeil happened along and raised the stakes for setting a drama.
"With a set, either it's part of our understanding of the play or it's not, either it helps us into what is happening or it doesn't," Mr. MacNeil says. "A set can't be better than the production. There is the odd musical where the writing is really weak and you need spectacle to engage. I sometimes think the set is doing more work than the writing. People blame the scenery. Well, it's not the designer's fault that nobody bothered to write the piece."
There's plenty of good writing in Priestley's "An Inspector Calls," the tale of a wealthy family torn apart by an investigation into the suicide of a young woman. The play hit the London stage in 1946, the product of the boisterous days after World War II, when the British Labor Party seized power with a platform to smash the old order and build a welfare state.
Mr. MacNeil and Mr. Daldry breathed life into the play by turning the drawing room mystery inside out. The audience first glimpses the Birling family through the windows of the dining room. When the inspector calls, the Edwardian dollhouse opens and the play takes flight.
"It took Stephen [Daldry] months to come up with the idea of having the family come outside when the inspector calls," Mr. MacNeil says. "A simple idea. But the simple ideas are the hardest."
The play is set in 1912, but that hasn't stopped Mr. MacNeil from dotting the stage with artifacts from the first half of the 20th century. The dollhouse rises from a yard of blackened cobblestones. The sky turns from slate gray to bright yellow. In one corner sits a World War II-vintage radio, an homage to Priestley's role as a radio commentator. In the other corner is a bright red British telephone booth.
Mr. MacNeil says it cost nearly $200,000 to create the first set in London and at least double that to stage the production in New York. Had it not been for Britain's state-supported theater, he says, the set might never have been made. As it was, he and Mr. Daldry had to do a selling job to get the financial backing. "It's just not show biz," he says. "You can't make an audience believe in the play if you don't believe in it yourself. And we believed in it."
For now, he has no plans to leave the live performing arts. Clearly, he is influenced by film, but he does not want to switch from London to Hollywood.
"Design to me is that every object you look at is in my control and is built by me," he says. "In the theater, nothing goes on stage unless it has been on my drawing board. Nothing. There is a totalitarianism about that, which I find very satisfying."
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza
When: Oct. 17-29. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays.
$ Call: (410) 625-1400