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Writing for the Sake of 'The Guys'

In the aftermath of 9/11, journalist Anne Nelson found a way to do her part for New York's firefighters

July 28, 2002|MIKE BOEHM

In the days after the World Trade Center fell, Anne Nelson, a combat-correspondent-turned-journalism-professor, sat in her ivory tower at New York's Columbia University having what she calls "a crisis of marginality."

The story of a lifetime had rained down on her city, and all she could do was sit eight miles uptown and fret about the safety of students she had sent to gather the news. There was no point in volunteering for the rescue and recovery operation at ground zero--it needed people skilled in building trades, not literary types.

Then came Sunday, Sept. 23, the day Nelson learned that they also serve who sit and write. Nelson, her husband and their two kids were spending the day at her sister's brownstone in Brooklyn. The phone rang; the woman on the line said she knew of a New York Fire Department captain who needed help. Several of his men were dead. In a few days there would be memorial services, and he couldn't find the words. Without a text, he feared, he would freeze, failing the mourners and the dead. He needed a writer.

Within half an hour, the captain was sitting with Nelson. She didn't know it, but she was on the way to becoming a playwright--and to moving from the margins to the center as the creator of "The Guys," one of the first high-profile artistic conduits for a city's grief.

Now it may become a conduit for a nation's grief as well. The Actors' Gang in Hollywood is staging the first production of "The Guys" outside Manhattan, where it has been running since Dec. 4 at the 86-seat Flea Theater. Tim Robbins, the Actors' Gang artistic director, plays Nick, the captain, a role he also performed in New York. Helen Hunt ends her run today as Nelson's alter ego, Joan. Robbins' significant other, Susan Sarandon, will join him for three performances this week, then Philip Baker Hall and Jeanne Tripplehorn take over. "The Guys" will keep playing, with the cast rotating every three weeks, as long as demand holds.

In New York, says the play's original director, Jim Simpson, there is a hush and sniffling--much sniffling--in the audience, but frequent laughter as well. "The Guys" is not about the horror of the firefighters' deaths, but a remembrance of their lives--and a certain kind of humor belongs to a firehouse as surely as a Dalmatian or a pole to slide down.

The hush, the sniffling, the laughter--that's how it was at the Actors' Gang as well on the night "The Guys" first played for Los Angeles theatergoers. Nelson sat among them.

"It was the moment when it became a play for me," she said the next morning. For New Yorkers, she says, "The Guys" is as much a dimension of their ongoing, firsthand experience of Sept. 11--a public manifestation of the grieving within--as it is a play, a reflection of reality seen at a remove. One passage talks about circles of grief, the intensity changing by degrees depending on one's proximity to the towers and one's intimacy with the dead. Los Angeles is not the innermost circle.

If "The Guys" can connect with audiences far from New York, Nelson says, "maybe it has a quality that goes beyond reflecting an immediate experience."

The two actors are not so removed. Robbins grew up in Manhattan and lives in Chelsea. When he saw "The Guys" in December, with its original cast of Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver, he knew that playing the captain could help him deal with his own crisis of marginality. "It was something tangible that I could do." The biggest challenge, he says, is to hold it together, to keep his own grief from intruding on the captain's.

For Hunt, this role has been a way of confronting memories she had pushed down. On Sept. 11 she was having breakfast in a restaurant a few blocks north of the World Trade Center; she dashed outside and saw the aftermath with her own eyes. "I heard a plane flying way too low and heard the most sickening sound I ever heard and walked outside and watched the rest of it unfold."

She had shunned news footage. But when she took the part of Joan, her instincts as an actress preparing for a role told her to watch a TV documentary on the disaster.

"Moving toward the experience must be the right thing for me to do now," she says. "I want to be in a room where this painful event is brought up and we are together. I want to be in a room with people, to connect with each other about that day."

"The Guys" is an apt point of reentry, says Hunt, because it is modest and personal. The actors read from scripts, a signal that this is a document as well as a performance. "It feels to me like it's way too early for playwrights to be writing about this, and yet this seemed like the perfect first piece to come out of the experience--a simple story about two human beings coming together, one who felt too far away, and one who was clearly too close," Hunt says.

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