The World Trade Towers loomed not only over Manhattan but also over New Jersey. On 9/11, I could smell them burning from my home in Millburn. I vividly remember going with my dad when they first opened to the public (1976; I did a cartwheel on the Observation Deck). So a play about how they came to be is a great idea, one full of local significance and national resonance. Matt Schatz’s new play The Tallest Building in the World takes on that story.
Artistic and managing Director, Jane Mandel says in the program notes that “The Tallest Building in the World” is a play about buildings.” As a result, Schatz’s play is always interesting, but rarely involving. To make us care, a play needs to be about people, with a story unfolding with suspense. How much you’ll enjoy the story of how the buildings happened will depend on what you bring to it; it’s sort of like a History channel special with characters.
The plot follows Gino (David Bonnano), a vice president at New York’s Port Authority (also an engineer, though we rarely see any engineering ideas from him) as he recruits Michigan architect Yama (Pun Bandhu) to design the World Trade Center. It’s the Kennedy era, and period music sets the scene along with skinny ties. In a prelude, The Chrysler Building, a woman in a long grey sheath (Nehassaiu deGannes, who plays all the female roles) describes her life as the Tallest Building, before being ousted by other buildings, including, eventually, the Empire State (Drew Dix plays her rivals). The buildings speak again at the start of Act II. It’s an original device, but as directed by Troy Miller, it’s ponderously emphatic. Miller’s direction is precise, but the play would work better at a snappier pace, to match Schatz’s repartee.
While the characters don’t know what will happen, everyone in the audience knows Yama will take the job, that the design he will come up with after some false starts is two towers, etc, so there’s not much suspense. The play comes to life though, as soon as Lee, a brash young engineer from California, pushes his way in. He’s a more interesting character than middle manager and somewhat sad sack Gino, or lovelorn and artistic Yama (whose wife has kicked him out and is living in his architectural office).
Throughout the play there is a fair amount of architectural name dropping. “I.M. Pei hated [my design], he hates everything I do, the prick,” Yama grumbles. There are also laughs based on the audience’s knowledge, as when Mr. Kravitz (Dix), who owns a shop in Radio Row (which will be demolished to make way for the buildings) raves about the new color television, Sunny (“S-o-n-y”). Every scene is complete in itself, with conflict and backstory, as if the play were written in chunks, but they don’t form a dramatic arc. Schatz’s idea to include the ramifications of the design is worthwhile, but ultimately distracting.We don’t understand why the buildings matter to Gino. Even the idea to make them “the tallest buildings in the world” is a gimmick invented by boardwoman Mrs. Saffron. As Saffron, DeGannes exaggerates the accent and attitude as a pushy broad.
Lee, on the other hand, is utterly fresh, particularly with the whiny, earnest smarts that Prestenback brings to him. He informs Gino that he came up with a theory in 3rd grade, “if you act like a spaz, people will forgive you for being pushy.” It’s a strategy that works in business and in academia, he says, but not with girls: “They just get annoyed.” He states that his own ideas aren’t “interesting, they’re revolutionary.” And throughout the play he shows us just that. The science is fresher than the aesthetics, and it’s fascinating to watch Lee conduct trials about wind tunnels and load. The other characters too seem to perk up around Lee: Bonanno’s Gino shows gravitas as the adult with the puppy; Badhu’s Yama displays wit and temper. A scene in which that conflict between adult and boyish temperament unwittingly leads to a breakthrough is wholly satisfying, even thrilling. And the play’s final moment is visually stunning (set design by Robert Monaco), a reminder of what we lost 10 years ago.
The remaining performances for Tallest Building are:
# Thursday May 5, 2011 7:30pm
# Friday May 6, 2011 8:00pm
# Saturday May 7, 2011 8:00pm
# Sunday May 8, 2011 2:00pm
# Thursday May 12, 2011 7:30pm
# Friday May 13, 2011 8:00pm
# Saturday May 14, 2011 8:00pm
# Sunday May 15, 2011 2:00pm
Photo: Steven Lawler