Fireman’s September 11 Grief Inspires Play

By BETSY M. HUNTON Special to the Planet
Tuesday May 20, 2003

Not thinking highly of the Berkeley Repertory’s new production “The Guys” is rather like not being impressed with your best friend’s new baby. It’s a touch hard to figure out exactly what you should say.  

The play came directly out of the horror of Sept. 11. In more than one way it is a direct and honest response to the chaos and agony that permeated New York in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Author Anne Nelson is a longtime reporter who teaches at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. The play is a first draft, written in nine days and never revised.  

It could almost be a transcript of her experience with a firefighter whom she helped to write eulogies for the men in his unit who died at the towers. 

The situation is heartbreaking, and still so close to our personal experience that it seemed embarrassing to feel relief that the “The Guys” is limited to four of the eight eulogies. Considering the play’s source, it’s hard to admit to a tinge of boredom. 

The substance of the play is the dialogue between the writer (Sharon Lawrence) and the fireman (Keith David) as he provides touching reminiscences of the dead men and she, in turn, writes eulogies and reads them back to him. It is far from an easy format for the actors. Each has lengthy speeches at times, and the other character little opportunity to respond. Other difficulties are inherent in the text, but both actors come through quite well. 

There is a little variation in the format when the writer comments directly to the audience about her own feelings or personal experiences. And there is a rather jarring attempt at relief from the play’s substance by some references to Argentina and the introduction of a tango between the two characters. (The rationale seems to be the fact that Nelson had to go to that country to give a lecture immediately after finishing the play). Nelson apparently expected to subject her first draft to the usual process of revision but was short-circuited by the speed with which the “The Guys” was staged.  

The play’s history would rouse envy in most fledgling playwrights. Shortly after Sept. 11, Nelson, who has no previous experience with playwriting and no particular ambition in that field, accidentally met Jim Simpson, the founder of New York’s Flea Theater. Located just seven blocks from the World Trade Center, the theater flourished before the attacks but audiences vanished in the subsequent chaos. 

Simpson, who is married to Sigourney Weaver, was vigorously looking for a play based on the tragedy. When Nelson casually told him about her work with the firefighter, he jumped at the idea. Simpson asked Nelson to turn her experience into a play, which then opened 12 weeks after the bombings. 

Aside from public interest in the material, the play’s success may have been boosted by the fact that Weaver and her friend, Bill Murray, played the writer and the firefighter. They established a pattern in which pairs of actors of similar renown rotated through the roles for short periods. Berkeley Repertory is following that same practice. The actors will include Dan Lauria, Lorraine Toussaint, Joe Spano, Linda Purls, Jimmy Smits and Wanda de Jesus.  

Another tradition which Berkeley Repertory maintains is that the actors work from open scripts. There are various explanations for that staging, but none mention that it might have something to do with the fact that the actors may not have time to completely learn their roles. 

The house manager made an announcement before the play started that the use of the scripts was to create a greater sense of reality. 

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