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Theatre in Review: The Eternal Space (Theatre Row)

Clyde Baldo, Matt Pilleci. Photo: Mike Scully

In case you were wondering, a picture really is better than a thousand words; at least, that's the case with The Eternal Space. The playwright, Justin Rivers, has focused on one of the great architectural crimes of the 20th century, the demolition of New York's Pennsylvania Station, but at Theatre Row's Lion Theatre, that magnificent building has risen from the rubble, in the form of projections, by Brad Peterson, mapped onto the arches and walls of Jason Sherwood's set. All the details are there: the classical columns, the vast stone floors, the colonnades, the globular lighting fixtures, the crystal-palace ceilings made of iron and glass -- and the way the sun, pouring in through the upper windows, created columns of light that seemed integral to the building's structure. If you've wondered what it was like to dwell in these marble halls, this is your opportunity.

Rather less interesting is The Eternal Space itself: Rivers has conceived a genial, but unexciting, odd-couple comedy that moves along its appointed track with the predictability of the 5:15 train from Hoboken. Joseph Lanza, a cranky, middle-aged English teacher, is part of AGBANY, Action Group for Better Architecture in New York, a real-life organization that bitterly protested the building's destruction in the early 1960s. Joseph is caught pasting protest signs by Paul Abbot, a construction worker, who has been assigned to keep such activities to a minimum. Paul is notably unsympathetic to Joseph's cause: "You want to save it? Buy it," he snaps at the older man.

It is also true that Paul, in his free time, is photographing every step of the building's destruction, for reasons he can't really explain to Joseph -- or to himself. Indeed, he takes great pains to note that he prefers to shoot performances by the likes of Twyla Tharp at Judson Memorial Church. It's one of the oddities of the script that Paul is presented as both a barely literate working stiff and a devotee of avant-garde theatre. Over the next few years, Joseph dogs Paul, sparring with him, keeping track of his photographic process, and offering stories from his past.

Of course, five minutes in, one is aware that Joseph and Paul will become fast friends. That's how it is in these two-handers: If the characters don't open up to each other, there's no play. (The play rather confusingly suggests that Penn Station continued to be used by commuters even as it was being taken down; could this possibly be true?) As it happens, each has a secret personal connection to the building, which will be revealed in the fullness of time; each also has a major personal problem, one involving marriage and one involving health, and each is assigned a big monologue about the loss of a loved one in wartime. Despite all this, the characters and their friendship never feel like more than a playwright's conceit. The conversation proceeds in standard sitcom fashion: "I'm not a fan of sophisticated banter while I eat," says Paul. "It gives me gas." World War II and Vietnam get dragged into the conversation, as do father-and-son relationships. At all times, you can feel the play's gears turning as the two men gradually warm up to each other. It's easy to wish they'd take a quiet moment and let us enjoy the architecture.

Then again, Clyde Baldo (Joseph) and Matthew Pilieci (Paul) are true pros, who, under Mindy Cooper's solid direction, make their dialogue seem better than it is. Their encounters are sometimes charming, if not terribly urgent. Joseph has a lovely speech recalling the station in its heyday. ("The granite was a clean pink and the walls a spotless white. Every globe on every light was pristine. You thought you were in Rome.") He also gets to quote a bit of "Howl," by Allen Ginsberg, and, when reading from his introduction to a book about Penn Station -- a piece of exquisitely judged prose -- he handles it beautifully enough to bring tears to one's eyes.

The production also benefits from Zach Blane's sensitive lighting, especially his rendering of the station at night. Tristan Raines' costumes nicely contrast Joseph's tweedy ensembles with Paul's working-Joe boots and jeans. Jeremiah Rosenthal's sound design recreates the ambience of the station and also supplies a radio broadcast that provides the play's poignant last word. Peterson's projections include a news broadcast that begins on the upstage wall and spreads over the set, a nighttime view of the iron-and-glass ceilings that is transformed as morning sunlight transforms the room. As a finale, after it has been torn down, the building rises up again and seems to ascend to the heavens.

Clearly a piece written with real love for its subject, The Eternal Space doesn't quite transcend its limitations, but it provides a powerful reminder of a stunning architectural achievement that, the characters note, was meant to last forever, and barely made it past the age of 50. It's a melancholy thought, easily the most moving thing in Rivers' play. -- David Barbour

(20 November 2015)

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