We saw a new play on Broadway last week: a revival of Arthur Miller's 1964 drama After the Fall. The cast included some familiar faces - Peter Krause from "Six Feet Under," Carla Gugino from "Karen Sisco" - but the most familiar face of all was the set. Richard Hoover's design is not just inspired by, but is a nearly faithful reproduction of, Eero Saarinen's landmark TWA Terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport.
If you fly into JFK, you may see the unmistakable silhouette of the TWA Terminal from the outside. But not the inside: its namesake carrier defunct, the interior spaces have been closed to visitors for more than two years.
This makes its hold on the popular imagination all the more fascinating.
As a moviegoer, you may have seen Saarinen's interiors in Catch Me if You Can, where Steven Spielberg and production designer Jeannine Oppewall used TWA's concourses to instantly evoke the breezy, sexy spirit that informed the dawn of the jet set era. Sometimes the reference is more indirect. In Men in Black, anti-alien operatives Jay and Kay work out of a high-tech headquarters filled with TWA's characteristic sculptural swoops. (The Saarinen influence even provides one of the movie's great sight gags, when Will Smith casually attempts to move one of the master's much-heavier-than-they-look Knoll coffee tables.)
Miller's psychodrama After the Fall attracted attention when first staged for its thinly-disguised portrayal of Miller's tumultuous marriage to Marilyn Monroe. The script leaves the setting ambiguous: the action is meant to take place inside the protagonist's head. But in Michael Mayer's staging, instead of a darkened stage, we see Saarinen's voluptuous curves. "The design Richard Hoover and I came up with very specifically situates the play at a TWA at Kennedy, which we discovered was built in May of 1962," said director Mayer. "In my mind, the play starts in the fall of that year, a few months after the terminal was built, and it was sleek, brand new and very beautiful. This design seems to lend itself to the transformational quality you want from the rest of the play." To Hoover's credit, the set is not just respectful but downright adulatory: he even gets the signage right.
More than any other modern monument, Saarinen's TWA seems to capture a lost America of imagination and hope, captured forever in Ezra Stoller's dreamlike black and white photographs. But for a moment, the building itself appeared to be doomed: a plan was afoot to demolish parts of the complex and build an enormous new terminal around it, preserving a token vestige of the original building as a site for retail shops and administrative offices. But thanks to the intervention of preservation groups led by the Municipal Arts Society, a new plan is awaiting Federal Aviation Administration approval. [Which it just received: see comment below.] It calls for leaving the building largely intact as an entrance to the gates of its new tenant, popular low cost carrier Jet Blue. The restored, reopened terminal will no doubt create new associations for new generations of travelers.
When it was first built, Saarinen's terminal was criticized by doctrinaire modernists for the crowd-pleasing literalism of its metaphors: the outside looked like a bird in flight, the inside like billowing clouds. It all seemed a bit too easy and specific, not cool and abstract enough too conform to the universalist ambitons of modernism. How strange it is that 40 years later that same building has come to mean so many different things to so many different people.
Michael Mayer has said that his production of After the Fall is meant to explore the idea of "borders in the mind being the most lethal borders that exist" and asks "What is an airport but a border between two places?" In Saarinen's indestructable terminal, we may have found a perfect monument for these uncertain times.
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