Volume 74, Number 42 | February 23 - March 01, 2005


Jane Jacobs versus Robert Moses with a Corbu twist

By Jerry Tallmer

Photo courtesy Les Freres Corbusier

Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum plays planning czar Robert Moses, left, and Elizabeth Meriwether is one of his “cheerleaders” in “Boozy” showing at the Ohio Theater through March 5.

Wherever Joseph Papp is, he must be chortling over an Off-Broadway show at the Ohio Theater on Wooster St. with the marathon title “Boozy: The Life, Death, and Subsequent Vilification of Le Corbusier and, More Importantly, Robert Moses.”

Or maybe not. Yes, it was Joe Papp who really started the whole decline and fall of Robert Moses when he soundly trounced the Master Builder and Commissioner of Everything over the issue of The Grass in Central Park vs. Free Shakespeare for the Citizenry in Central Park, back in the early1960s.
But no, there’s no mention of that, or of Papp, in the wacko dramatic exegesis of the fall and rise of Robert

Moses that writer/director Alex Timbers and cohorts of Les Freres Corbusier are perpetrating at the Ohio through March 5.

There’s almost everything else in it, however, including Le Corbusier himself, and F.D.R., Goebbels and Mussolini played (via video) by dressed-up bunny rabbits, and someone who purports to be the World Trade Center’s Daniel Libeskind, and a clutch of Free Masons, and millions of cars and another homegrown “Mosaic” dragon-slayer, the Jane Jacobs whose “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (Vintage, 1961) gave a great cumulative ongoing boost to what Joe Papp had begun.

The conceit of the show at the Ohio — emanating from a college dido up at Yale — is that the famous Swiss modernist architect Le Corbusier, Corbu for short, and Greenwich Village’s own Jane Jacobs were lovers, she seducing him with incredible flaky croissants, but that this got too much for Corbu, who jilts her, ditches her, wants out.

She turns into a fury, a harpy, seeking vengeance. And will exact vengeance by destroying Le Corbusier’s ideological and architectural heir, the great Robert Moses, reshaper of cities, when he blithely tries to cut a Lower Manhattan Expressway horizontally, or east-west, through the heart of Greenwich Village.

What actually in the end stopped Moses in his tracks was, rather, the six-lane expressway he sought to cut vertically, north-south, through the same heart of Greenwich Village and — no! no! — Washington Sq. It was not just Jane Jacobs but Shirley Hayes and the Reverend Howard Moody and Mary Perot Nichols and Daniel Wolf and a lot of other people who finally put the blocks to Big Bob.

But Alex Timbers didn’t know any of that. “I didn’t know any of that,” he said, sort of admiringly, a couple of nights ago. What he did know was what he had learned by reading Robert Caro’s 900-page “The Power Broker” (Knopf, 1974), all about Robert Moses from cradle to grave.

“An extraordinary work, masterfully written, completely compelling,” Timbers said. He read it twice. But it set forth strange creative juices, contrary juices, the juices of irony, welling up in young Timbers, who with a handful of other “old Yalies” (BA, 2001) had come down to New York and teamed together as Les Freres Corbusier, determined to tip over as many cultural apple carts as they could.

“To look at historical figures,” said Timbers, “and cast them into a world of avant-garde terror. Flip it. Flip them. So that Robert Moses becomes a hero, and Benjamin Franklin becomes a villain.”

The dramatic achievement of all this has encompassed, to date, “The Franklin Thesis,” “President Harding Is a Rock Star,” “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant” and, now, “Boozy.”

It was Le Corbusier (1887-1965) who famously said, on first viewing the towers of Manhattan: “They aren’t tall enough.” Timbers sees him as a comic figure with big eyeglasses who actually only got one structure built in America, the Carpenter Center (for film) at Harvard.

Robert Moses — with Lincoln Center, the Triborough Bridge, Jones Beach, Co-op City, Shea Stadium, the Coliseum, the West Side Highway, the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the 1964 World’s Fair, etc., etc. — is, in our play, erecting what are basically Le Corbusier’s works on a grand scale.

And pays for it.

Robert Moses lived from 1888 to 1981. Alex Timbers, who has the boniness, the lean jaw and the dark offbeat good looks of a Scott Fitzgerald character, was brought up on Manhattan’s East Side before he went off to Yale. His mother worked in the silver department at Sotheby’s. His father, in the son’s words, “used to run a bank.” Alex himself, born 1978, was 3 years old when Robert Moses left us.

His chief co-conspirators in the making of “Boozy” were and are David Evans Morris (sets) and Juliet Chia (lighting), along with Douglas J. Cohen (songs). What started the whole thing off in Timbers’s head was watching post-9/11 PBS documentaries about New York City and finding himself “mesmerized” at the heritage, for better and worse, of Master Planner/Master Builder Robert Moses.

In those days, remaking New York was a one-man show. “As opposed to the people who threw Daniel Libeskind out of the Freedom Tower and put in a committee.”

A camel is a horse designed by a committee.

“Yes. What about single vision — and the attraction of great works?”

Timbers himself, and his colleagues, were rewriting up into last week. The rabbit sequences were videotaped by producer Aaron Lemon-Strauss on the premises of “a nice lady in Westchester who takes pictures of rabbits. We brought up the costumes — little hats and armbands,” including, for Goebbels — who French-kisses Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi during the high jinks — little swastika armbands.

Well, Alex, what’s your own personal bottom line on Robert Moses?

“A great question,” the kid answers. “Very complicated, and has already become more complicated as I worked on the show. I do think it’s a disservice of everyone to dispose of him as a villain. I mean, the breadth of his public works, his achievement, is extraordinary.

“But how he achieved that, and at the exclusion of consulting other people, is real troubling.”

P.S. Timbers and his pals have been trying to invite Jane Jacobs to “Boozy.” Ms. Jacobs, if you’re reading this, please call the Ohio Theater, 212-966-4844.

“BOOZY: The Life, Death, and Subsequent Vilification of Le Corbusier and, More Importantly, Robert Moses.” Written and directed by Alex Timbers. A presentation of Les Freres Corbusier through March 5 at the Ohio Theater, 66 Wooster St. between Spring and Broome Sts., 212-397-2666.

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