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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

When the World Trade Center Became
The Tallest Building in the World

Also see Bob's review of Curtains

The Tallest Building in the World
Pun Bandhu and
David Bonanno

Is it possible to contain the monumental story of the more than decade long struggle to build the World Trade Center in a conventional two act play? This is a difficult question to answer. However, after viewing Matt Schatz' admirable, ambitious, and often fascinating The Tallest Building in the World, it can be said that it is a daunting, Herculean task. For all the skill and conceptional brilliance that Schatz brings to it, the wide scope of his play suggests far too many questions which remain unanswered for it to be ultimately satisfying. However, that weighty caveat notwithstanding, Tallest Building has much to recommend it. The same can be said for the striking, superior world premiere production which it is currently receiving at West Orange's Luna Stage.

The action occurs throughout the 1960s, the decade which it took to build the very controversial project. The controversy ranged from the appropriateness of the project itself, including its financing and ownership by the Port Authority, and the quality of its design. Scores of architects, structural engineers, executives and managers contributed to the architecture and viability, and details of its construction. Schatz has wisely chosen to focus on the three most influential figures who were most responsible for it. These three were Port Authority Director Guy Tozzoli, chief architect Minoru Yamasaki, who conceived the idea of twin towers, and lead structural designer Leslie Robertson, respectively baring the fictional names Gino Gobeli, Yama Fujiama, and Lee Alexander.

Given the historic expanse of the narrative, author Schatz nicely limns the three with individual, dimensional personalities. Michigan architect Fujiama is a reluctant hire of Gobeli. The scale of the project does not suit his taste, and he is reluctant to be under the control of government bureaucracies. Only when he learns that Gobeli is himself an engineer does he begin to show him due respect and to seriously consider the assignment. Gobeli is the kind of supportive director who understands and supports the creativity of his architect. However, as problems develop and compromises, solutions and a team approach is required, Gobeli will brook no less than what is needed from his architect. The less developed Alexander is portrayed as a bookish genius who provides the design physics without which the architect's design could not stand.

Pan Bandhu gives us an extraordinarily believable and complex portrayal of Fujiama. While his architect is brilliantly innovative, Bandhu embodies a lack of a soaring vision which would account for the heavily criticized boxy look which both architecture critics and average New Yorkers found uninspiring. David Bonanno fully conveys the intelligence and understanding that a public executive at the highest level should, but sadly often does not, have. Kane Prestenback scores by showing us that structural engineer Robertson knows that all he needs is good science to exercise authority.

In order to increase a viewer's interest in a play whose central concern is skyscraper architecture, Schatz has an "actor" and "actress" to play other "tallest" buildings in addition to other brief subsidiary roles. Drew Dixon and Nehassaiu deGannes make solid contributions in these roles. DeGannes' Chrysler building does an outstanding job of conveying the sensual nature of adoration of great art. Director Troy Miller has staged the play in a rectangle around which the audience is seated in four sections, creating a large box (suitable to the subject at hand) in a small space. Miller employs light and sound to convey the majesty of great skyscrapers.

Yet little, if any, of the economic, political, legal and social issues which attended the birth of the World Trade Center is explored. What makes for great architecture? Was the World Trade Center great architecture after all? Was it well designed functionally? Did the architecture and engineering of the World Trade Center, with its revolutionary lightweight outer structure, contribute to the death toll on 9/11? (This is an unavoidable concern even though the play does not cover 9/11.) Without answering such questions, The Tallest Building in the World cannot fully satisfy.

The Tallest Building in the World continues performances (Thursday 7:30 pm/ Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Sunday 2 pm) through May 15, 2011, at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange. Box Office: 973-395-5551; online: www.lunastage.org.

The Tallest Building in the World by Matt Schatz, directed by Troy Miller

Cast
Yama............................Pun Bandhu
Gino.........................David Bonanno
Woman............Nehassaiu deGannes
Man....................................Drew Dix
Lee........................ Ken Prestenback


Photo: Steven Lawler


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- Bob Rendell



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