Tonight and Friday at 7 pm Murder, Love, and Insanity: Stanford White and the Gilded Age will be broadcast live from the top of the old New York Life Building at ArtOnAir.org. The building, also known as the Clock Tower, was designed by White in 1897 and provided plenty of grist for Peter McCabe, the show’s producer and writer. McCabe has his own show on the website and began pondering the idea about a year ago. A grant from the Jerome Foundation made the six week project a reality.
Directed by Damien Gray in the style of a 1940s radio program, the show plays before a live audience. Tickets are free, but reservations are required as the building also houses courtrooms and various city agencies, security is tight. Still, taking the trip to the top of the tower is worth the extra effort. The semicircle elevator banks and clock tower become de facto props that don’t upstage Gian Marco lo Forto’s opulence-on-a-budget set design. Having a pair of Tiffany glass windows serve as a backdrop certainly doesn’t hurt.
McCabe’s fascination with White didn’t start with his gig at the clock tower. He had a dorm in NYU’s Judson Hall (White, 1892) and his great grandfather commissioned White to build Blair Mansion in Maryland.
The play takes a Rashomon approach with five episodes telling the story from different vantages, with thematic shifts that range from fetishistic notions of beauty to building Madison Square Garden. The symmetry of the play’s structure might remind one of White’s own use of symmetry, but McCabe said that a good play like a good building, masks the structure, unless where it doesn’t, for effect.
But here the playwright was more focused on ornamentation that festoons the structure. “They had a very grand ornate view of things, including their language,” said McCabe “It was ostentatious and so were the buildings.” The radio format, with its carnivalesque stylings allow McCabe to drop some of the baroque speech, making it easier on the contemporary ear. Some dialog will no doubt sound extremely familiar to architects, regardless of the time period: