America’s Rebellion Against the Car
The Philosophy Behind Making Times Square a Public Space

Manhattan’s Broadway, after a portion of it was closed
to automobile traffic earlier this year.

America, in a stuporous hangover from a decade-long party of indulgence, seems to be recovering in a cultural rebellion against the drink that ailed us.

In a highly prescient move to invest in the future of New York City, the closing of Times Square to automobiles marks the first large step towards what could be a new brand of American urban planning.

The experiment to close down Broadway between 42nd and 47th streets and around Herald Square is an attempt to not only decrease congestion on sidewalks, but also to see what will happen when such a famous American space is entirely devoted to people that use their legs.

In the most courageous step of urban planning in the last ten years, New York has made Times Square a pedestrian-only area. That is, a public place without cars.

If you were to walk through Times Square a few weeks ago, you would have had to wade through a jam of tourists. From a pedestrian’s standpoint, it was the annoying tourist trap of the city, where elbows were bumped, solicitors of entertainment were relentless and obtrusive, and busy New Yorkers lost valuable time. It was still a fascinating area, with plenty to get excited about. But at times the congestion felt as if all of a sudden something terribly violent could happen, and a sea of civilians would engage in a frenzy of savage behavior. In cities, this type of neurotic claustrophobia tends to lead to the over-commoditization of an area in which innovation loses out to mass quantity/low quality commercial goods and the area invariably ends up imploding giving way to crime and more plastic (see: Times Square circa 1974).

Times Square has been steadily improving since its days of grit and grime in the seventies. To say the space has just “gotten better” would be like saying the discovery of fire was “kind of cool.” The area used to be a bastion of debauchery, with the type of folklorish urban wickedness that you only see in Kurt Russell films from the eighties.

Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architecture critic for the New York Times, described the new pedestrian-only Times Square as such:

“A large part of the design’s success stems from the altered relationship between the pedestrian and the structures that frame the square. Walking down the cramped, narrow sidewalks, a visitor could never get a feel for the vastness of the place. Now, standing in the middle of Broadway, you have the sense of being in a big public room, the towering billboards and digital screens pressing in on all sides.
This adds to the intimacy of the plaza itself, which, however undefined, can now function as a genuine social space: people can mill around, ogle one another and gaze up at the city around them without the fear of being caught under the wheels of a cab.”

It is this sort of remarkable open space, in the midst of a densely crowded Manhattan, that gives Times Square such potential. If the space is upheld (they will try the experiment until December), New York has the opportunity to set a precedent for new urban centers in America, where commerce can thrive because of the absence of the automobile.

Removing cars from Times Square seems to be as much of a revolutionary statement for America as creating a public space. The philosophy is no longer that the automobile is a tool of freedom, but rather a hindrance in a world that needs to figure out how to live more sustainably. It is the resurgence of density over sprawl, quality over quantity, that is picking up steam in our beleaguered economy. And with an administration in the White House that has the opportunity to re-evaluate the transportation authorization bill in September for the first time in six years, hundreds of billions of dollars could be routed towards innovative modes of transportation that lead to more sustainable and dense urban centers.

This new philosophy, adopted by Mayor Bloomberg and the proponents for a car-free Times Square, seems to be saying that an increasingly wireless marketplace, defined by the emergence of a creative class, has lesser need for the automobile. Mobility in commerce can now happen on all levels, from a device in our pocket to a satellite in space. All of this is to say that the move in making Times Square a public space is a step in the right direction, in keeping American cities out of the business of ancient ruins for possibly a few more centuries.

New York’s other brave public works project, the High Line, is a great example of how public spaces positively effect the commerce around pedestrian-only areas, as commercial real estate prices around the High Line have skyrocketed and dug the lower west side out its “dilapidated” status.

On the Subject
The New York Times has been covering the Broadway pedestrian mall.
• Lose the Traffic. Keep That Times Square Grit.
• No Vehicles, but Plenty of People on Broadway
• Photo Essay: A Traffic-Free Broadway
‚Ä¢ Reinventing America’s Cities: The Time Is Now

But Times Square is unique in that it needs no commercial boost. It is already the symbol for American ingenuity. So how do we transform a space that will maintain its hard-working American grittiness, yet still become the highest standard for urban pedestrian sanctuaries? This will be the question that the city of New York must carefully answer if they are to be the example for the New American City.

It is not as if America can attempt to transform Times Square into a European socialistic space where local farmers could sell their goods and trees could provide a sense of natural tranquility. That would be foolhardy. That is not the spirit of Times Square. The space itself is paved and futuristic, the living and breathing image of capitalism at its best. With more room to breathe and walk, Americans can now witness the wonders of commerce happening around them, amazed at the brilliance of each piece of advertising, each technological development, and each news ticker announcing the progress of the information age. It is a place where they can experience high art and hundreds of different ethnicities at the same time.

New York will have to bank on this infrastructure to design Times Square in such a way that these strengths can be exploited and enjoyed. The arts will play a major role in this and Broadway theaters need to rise to the occasion of this rare opportunity if they want to be at the cusp of this potentially lucrative wave. Broadway theaters have somehow stayed afloat over the past few months, some even increasing their revenues from this time last year, and more people interacting with each other in an open space – without the hindrance of congestion – has never been a bad thing for the arts community.

To those concerned about how they’ll deliver goods to the five blocks closed to vehicles, or how they ought to navigate the new streams of traffic on adjoining avenues: Figure it out. You’re running out of gas. This is the time for architects and urban planners to step up. It is time for us to make new strides in mobility, yet be willing to go back to that ancient pastime of “walking.” It would do us all some good to shed a few pounds and make eye contact with a person of a different race.

The continual decline in popularity of America’s greatest invention, the automobile, is sure to be a contentious topic for decades to come. Its greatest rival will be a New Urbanist way of thinking that esteems walkability and encourages a newly creative marketplace where home and the workplace once again come together. It is not only dense urban spaces that could combat the automobile, but also the way we do business altogether.

This is not meant to be a highfalutin’ utopian dream or nostalgic musing, but rather an attempt at practical steps towards greater civility. The autonomy of a vehicle has given the individual freedom of mobility, but also created an insular community of strangers that have the freedom to throw temper tantrums without consequence and rebuke their fellow travelers from the safety of a large metal box. These can be combative elements to the audacious social optimism of urban spaces, making honking a 100-decibel car horn amidst a sea of innocent pedestrians a selfishly irresponsible and uncivil act. To say the resurgence of public car-free spaces is a step towards higher personal responsibility and a culture of greater civility is no “dreamy” thing.

Ouroussoff wrote an article recently in the New York Times called “Reinventing America’s Cities: The Time is Now” in which he lays out practical steps towards a new urban center. Anyone concerned about the future of their own city should read his thoughts.

Barring any setbacks, Times Square has the chance to be a model for the new way we build cities and, without the danger of some angry SUV blaring its horn and zipping past kids, could be the place where the strengths of capitalism and the beautiful intricacies of the American marketplace could stretch its legs and flex its muscles.

The Ugly Path to Adulthood

Thomas Sadoski and Piper Perabo in a scene
from Neil LaBute’s
reasons to be pretty.

Playwright Neil LaBute has always been a master of malice. His plays, filled with the grand intricacies of name-calling and the subtlety of allusive pricks to the heart, are studies on the subterraneous cruelty we have grown accustomed to brandishing against those we say we love.

In his newest play, reasons to be pretty, now playing under the direction of Terry Kinney at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway, LaBute’s characters have moved beyond the point of grinning and bearing anything. These characters are fed up with being treated unjustly. They have unleashed some primal forms of cruelty that are familiar in appearance, but when placed under the careful microscope of Neil LaBute, can be as brutal as a National Geographic documentary.

reasons to be pretty opens with the play’s main character, Greg (Thomas Sadoski), being verbally ripped to pieces by his girlfriend, Steph (Marin Ireland), for a comment he made to a co-worker that was meant to be “harmless” and completely unheard by anyone – especially his girlfriend. Greg’s comment concerned Steph’s physical appearance, which compared a certain body part to the new ogle-inducing blonde that works upstairs. The body part: Steph’s face. The abominably nasty word used to describe Steph’s face: regular.

The deadly comment sets off a series of events that place Greg in the judgment seat, where he is charged with the seemingly impossible task of being an adult. That is to say that he is fessing up, trying to be responsible, and asking those around him to listen, forgive, and change. If you’re a character in a LaBute play, this task is like juicing a two-by-four.

Steph breaks up with Greg and her immense anger turns into utter resentment in an achingly awkward scene where Steph stands up in the middle of the local mall’s food court and reads aloud Greg’s physical flaws. With vengeful flashes of Medea, Steph spouts off Greg’s physical defects executioner-style, remarking on everything from his premature balding to his (clear throat) nether-regions. But in the play’s first glimpse of compassion, Steph reveals why her predatory litany does not fit Greg’s crime: it wasn’t true. What Steph read aloud to the world was fabricated, constructed to be hurtful. What Greg said to his buddy about her face was honest. Steph reveals her longing to do good, which is constantly trumped by her lust to punch back.

While Greg attempts to repair his shattered relationship with Steph, his co-worker and best friend, Kent (Steven Pasquale), fans the flames of Greg’s moral predicaments as LaBute’s archetypal – yet always enthralling – testosterone-driven male. Like an old high school friend you didn’t want to run into over Thanksgiving, Kent’s locker room-language induces laughter at first and audible moans of bitterness later. Kent’s wife, Carly (Piper Perabo), is the play’s picture of “acceptable” physical beauty until she becomes pregnant and undesirable to Kent.

What unfolds is a whirlwind of conflict where people are asked to be accountable for their cruelty, or at least explain it. LaBute’s script has been revised since its off-Broadway run six months ago, and focuses less on an obsession with looks than on the ramifications for such conceited fascinations, which is what sets the play apart from his earlier works.

With plays like The Shape of Things and Fat Pig, LaBute has become the theatre’s expert on our culture’s physical obsession. Fat Pig is the story of a thirty-something male who falls in love with an obese woman. In the end, selfishness wins out, as the man dumps the woman and admits that even “true” love will fall victim to his obsession with appearance. This heartbreaking, deep-seated truth – no matter the cost, people are out more for themselves than others – is at the root of LaBute’s plays.

But reasons to be pretty adds another element to the cruel-on-cruel crimes of his characters: by the end, most of them are desperately trying to be responsible. Whether they succeed at growing up is debatable, but it is a theme that LaBute has only scratched the surface of until now.

In the playwright’s note, LaBute writes, “I’ve written about a lot of men who are really little boys at heart, but Greg, the protagonist in this play, just might be one of the few adults I’ve ever tackled.” Along with this new sense of adulthood, the characters in reasons find themselves with a moral dilemma. If they are to grow up and act responsibly, then they insist those around them do so as well. In the theatre, this is the point when characters get hurt or do some hurting themselves. In reasons, this ethical catharsis culminates in a rough and bloody fight, Greg being the character who prevails. Was this violent match the point of Greg’s becoming an adult? The audience sure thought so, applauding and whooping for the average Joe who finally took justice into his own hands, as if to say, “Yes, the adult thing to do is to beat the shit out of those who wrong you.” We the audience, apparently, were as unequipped to bang the gavel as the fallen characters we were observing.

In essence, LaBute’s characters in reasons are struggling from taking on the role of judge and possessing the mercy to rule outside their own self-interests. They are trying to adopt a morality that ultimately falls apart when those they love and care about fall short of such a high standard. This is LaBute’s equation for cruelty, and sets him above the mold in being able to express the normalcy of the chaos we live in.

All of this makes for a dizzyingly exciting night of theatre, with countless thematic implications that go deeper than just the skin. Even though many of LaBute’s scenes are filled with comically heavy arguments, it is the more subtle yet equally as potent jabs that tell us who these people really are. Their attempts at true goodness and beauty are executed with a sort of awkward frailty, like a child taking the training wheels off.

As always, LaBute’s dialogue is rhythmically beautiful, profane, and clever. He has concocted some of his most hilariously well-crafted insults and slurs to date, making one feel a little less pretty and somehow disturbingly more at home for laughing with and at the characters.

The performances are outstanding, particularly Marin Ireland’s acerbically biting yet exposed Steph, and Steven Pasquale’s wretchedly funny Kent. Thomas Sadoski as Greg provides us with a perfectly magnetic performance of LaBute’s everyman.

Director Terry Kinney (co-founder of Chicago’s continuously impressive Steppenwolf Theatre), brings an energy and flow to the play that makes it as comical as it is tragic, allowing us to hear LaBute’s dialogue at such a clipped and naturalistic pace that you would feel as if you were eavesdropping if you weren’t in a massive Broadway theatre. Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s sound design, and Kinney’s scene transitions, accelerated by a spinning siren and loud rock music, give the feel of an unpredictable joyride (it’s hard to go wrong when you toss a Radiohead number into the action).

David Gallo’s sets and David Weiner’s lighting provide a working class warehouse where the drama unfolds. Amidst the set’s towering shelves of stacked products of plastic, one wonders if this warehouse is the image of Greg’s world around him – a place with walls of baggage too high to scale, the work of unloading it never to be completed, like some American middle-class Sisyphus.

LaBute’s characters all hide behind their own egos through books, looks, and machismo, and by the end of the play are not necessarily stripped of their own selfishness, just a bit more responsible for it. This breeds a blatant compassion in his characters and, as one who has kept a keen eye on LaBute’s work, is an intriguing trail to see the prolific playwright go down. LaBute is raising some fascinating questions in reasons to be pretty. What do we value in relationships? Is it looks? Honesty? Flattery? Sacrifice?

And most importantly, in all seriousness: what would it take for you to love an ugly person?

reasons to be pretty

By Neil LaBute; directed by Terry Kinney; sets by David Gallo; costumes by Sarah J. Holden; lighting by David Weiner; sound and music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; technical supervision by Hudson Theatrical Associates; production stage manager, Christine Lemme; fight director, Manny Siverio; general manager, Daniel Kuney. An MCC Theater production, presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, MCC Theater, Gary Goddard Entertainment, Ted Snowdon, Doug Nevin/Erica Lynn Schwartz, Ronald Frankel/Bat-Barry Productions, Kathleen Seidel, Kelpie Arts L.L.C., Jam Theatricals and Rachel Helson/Heather Provost.

At the Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.
WITH: Thomas Sadoski (Greg), Marin Ireland (Steph), Piper Perabo (Carly) and Steven Pasquale (Kent).

Irena’s Vow

For more information and tickets,
visit the
Irena’s Vow website.

I recently saw the first dramatic reading of a play ever staged at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Entitled Irena’s Vow, the play is based on the real-life story of Irena Gut Opdyke, who, during World War II, saved the lives of 13 Jewish refugees by hiding them in her basement shelter. The players had just finished a six-month stint off Broadway, and are currently preparing the show for Broadway, where it will begin performances on March 10, 2009.

Based on a script by Dan Gordon and directed by Michael Parva, the play begins with Irena as an old woman, speaking with students at a school in the United States about her experiences, as she often did later in her life. Through her narrative, and a series of flashbacks, we are taken to Poland in the 1930s, as the Russians and Germans invade and occupy Irena’s home. Irena witnesses the brutal murder of a woman and her child by a German soldier, and vows to never again stand by and do nothing when innocent lives are threatened. She soon finds herself in a unique position to hide and protect the Jewish refugees working in the kitchen of a German officer, and begins the remarkable task of hiding them, giving them food and helping them shelter hope in the midst of the gathering storm around them.

Irena was 19 years old – beautiful, intelligent, and a devout Roman Catholic. She felt a deep compassion for those she was to protect, and even towards the Nazis with whom she spent her everyday life. Entranced by her wit and charm, an older German officer took her into his home to preside over the cleaning, cooking and management of his affairs. He eventually fell deeply in love with her, which helped account for her ability to hide 13 wanted people in the cellar of his house for two years.

A Different Story

The reading was simple and straightforward, with little direction, and many of the actors were in plain clothes and holding their scripts. But the humanity and strength of the story and the hard yet subtle truth of Gordon’s script made the reading powerful. Irena is played by Emmy and Tony nominee Tovah Feldshuh with grace and humor, a charming light in the midst of terrible circumstances, emboldened by her faith in God and humankind that the evil she sees is not the natural way of things, and will not overtake them.

The play was well received by the crowd at the United Nations, to put it mildly. Toward the end of the reading, the actors became increasingly hard to hear due to the widespread sounds of sniffling, and members of the audience rifled through pockets and purses for handkerchiefs and tissues. There were few dry eyes in the house.

And this is what I found particularly rousing about the performance: its ability to move this audience in this place. Most of the audience members were delegates at the United Nations: ambassadors, diplomats, politicians, researchers and activists. It is not easy to elicit tears from such a crowd. At a cocktail party afterward, as the cast came into the forum, the delegates lined up to wring their hands, to congratulate and give their thanks. Their eyes were shining with a particular light I have not often seen in those halls.

Several nights later I was having dinner with several of the lead actors of the play, Jon Stanisci and Tom Ryan, who both play German officers. Each is an accomplished actor with an impressive resume. But there was something different about this play, Stanisci told me. It took a series of near miracles to even get the play produced, and then staged, and then financed off-Broadway as the financial crisis hit full steam last fall, and finally to open on Broadway this spring, when so many other productions were closing their doors and moving on.

“I think there is a particular truth to the story,” said Stanisci. “This young woman, who was so normal and humble, propelled by the simple need to do good in a place that was so dark – there is something special about it that audiences respond to. I really think it is a blessed play, and we are blessed to be a part of it.” Ryan nodded his agreement.

A Crucial Place

This made me think again of the United Nations. My work there with an international advocacy organization brings me deep into the halls of the UN Headquarters. The UN was founded in the aftermath of the world broken by war, by the types of atrocities that Irena lived through and fought against. The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” If we do not steer our societies by the course of intrinsic human dignity, of the value of each human life despite the race, creed or circumstances, we veer unconsciously back toward untold destruction.

And yet this is not the belief one always sees affirmed in the halls of the UN. It has become a battle ground for culture wars and ideologies, and movements. Like any governing body, it is susceptible to corruption and that great force that turns power into impotence: bureaucratic process. Working there can overwhelm a person, as it no doubt does to many of the young delegates, or those from countries with weak economies and few resources. It is a place where power is often wielded irresponsibly, and questionable legislation approved because it is politically expedient, which will ultimately harm those most vulnerable to sickness and pain.

All of this makes works of art like Irena’s Vow even more important, and its staging at a place like the United Nations so crucial. Gone from that theater were the warring ideologies, political posturing, and the legislative mire of international policy. Here was a piece of art, presented simply, with little pomp or show, telling us that a single person, devoted to good and human dignity, can change the way of things. The delegates who might have been most opposed to some of the messages of the play sniffled alongside their political rivals. This is a testament to the power of art, the power of truth that cuts through our reason and our career and our politics. True art confronts us with a higher reason, a higher truth, bypassing paradigm and discourse and addressing itself to the heart. It reminds us that each human person is sacred, valued, to be protected. And that the smallest person, acting in courage, can make all the difference.