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A CurtainUp Review
The Eternal Space
Polar opposites in temperament, education, and in their mission they are, nevertheless, the human element at the core of Justin Rivers's play about what he aptly calls The Eternal Space. Under the fine direction of Mindy Cooper this is essentially a poignant consideration of the station's legacy and its architectural grandeur. It is also a reminder of what we have lost through dispassionate greed and a city's need for commercial gain.
The resonating majesty of Wagner's overture to Tannhauser is stirringly integrated to help define the almost spiritual essence of the now legendary station at different moments during the play. This tie-in that is not only apt but essential in this story that follows the demolition process of the fifty-three year old structure and its impact on two very different men.
One of the more imposing creations of renowned architects McKim, Mead and White, Penn Station was built in 1910 only to be deigned impractical and obsolete by the mid 1960s. With its beaux-arts design partly inspired by the Roman Baths of Caracalla, the awesome beauty of Penn Station was such that after its demolition it would serve as the catalyst to galvanize a concerted effort by ardent preservationists. The eventual establishment of The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission would also lead to saving Grand Central Station and other architectural treasures.
Despite this production being small in scale, it is neverthless grandly empowered. Through the playwright's somewhat conventional plot device, we listen as two men divided by a generation, education, and social strata provide distinctly different perspectives of what Penn Station was in its time, what it represents to them and what it fatefully became.
The plot pits Joseph Lanzarone (Clyde Baldo) an elderly English teacher who walks with a cane and has an intensely personal connection to Penn Station against Paul Abbot (Matthew Pilieci), a tough young man with a camera who is an otherwise impersonal member of the demolition team. Baldo is warm and winning as the undaunted activist and Pilieci puts a tough-as-nails veneer on the unfriendly Paul.
Looming above and around them is a continuing display of archived film and photographs that are projected upon designer Jason Sherwood's impressively receptive setting of what Penn Station was in its day and progressing through the different stages of its demise. That demise is observed and objectified in a series of confrontational meetings between the two men.
The visuals by projection designer Brad Peterson are the work the original journalists/photographers Norman McGrath, Peter Moore, Alexander Hatos, Ron Ziel and Aaron Rose, are the play's significant "other." These dominate the often heated confrontations of the two men who have their own deep-seated reasons for being where they are.
Putting up posters in the walls in protest of the on-going demolition, the soft-spoken Joseph has made it his mission to remain an intrusive obstructionist and be a witness to the inevitable fate of this glorious structure. He tries to goad the young hard-hat into revealing why is so obsessed with taking photographs of all of the architectural details during his breaks. Paul is reluctant to reveal, or possibly fully understand himself, why he feels compelled to capture the unfolding tragedy with pictures.
While Joseph's use of wit is refreshing, it is also irritating to the increasingly belligerent Paul. These two characters may be fictional but their clashes resolve in a denouement that provides the basis for what has been miraculously documented in a book, The Destruction of Penn Station, by photographer Peter Moore. Rivers' play beautifully documents his passion for (from the program bio) "all the things we don't appreciate until they're gone."
I was personally moved by this play as a member of the Theatre Historical Society, an organization dedicated to the preservation and restoration of the grand old movie palaces across the country. See The Eternal Space before it too is gone.