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New York's Theater Artists Pull Together for Attack Memorial

Stage* Name actors, writers and others plan 'Brave New World,' three days of benefit shows exploring Sept. 11 events and its aftermath.

September 06, 2002|KARIN LIPSON | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — When Bebe Neuwirth was invited to take part in "Brave New World," a three-day theater marathon commemorating the attacks of Sept. 11, she wasn't sure she wanted to.

"I was very reluctant to do anything gratuitous ... anything that would be interpreted as disrespectful," recalled Neuwirth, a star of the new film "Tadpole," former star of the musical "Chicago" and TV's dragon lady Lilith on "Cheers."

But talking with the event's organizers allayed her concerns, as did the company she'll be keeping in "Brave New World," which runs Monday through Wednesday at Manhattan's Town Hall and benefits the New York Children's Foundation.

"I thought, 'Gee, there's an awful lot of very, very classy people involved with this,' " she said. Among the 75 or so actors scheduled to take part are Sigourney Weaver; "Sex and the City" co-stars Kristin Davis and Cynthia Nixon; Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci (stars of Broadway's "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune"); Stockard Channing ("The West Wing"); Chris Noth ("Sex and the City"); Dana Ivey; Frank Langella; Marisa Tomei; and Julianna Margulies.

They will be presenting about 50 plays, songs and poems, most no more than 10 to 15 minutes long and written for the occasion by John Guare, Terrence McNally, Beth Henley, Tina Howe, David Henry Hwang, Lanford Wilson, Arthur Kopit and others.

Some playwrights and actors hesitated initially, for a variety of reasons: Did they have something new to say? Could they face reliving those catastrophic events? Would any form of entertainment seem, in Neuwirth's words, "gratuitous"?

In the end, though, they seemed to agree with Ivey, who will perform in plays by Alfred Uhry and Christopher Durang: "Many people are going to memorialize the day in different ways. And this is the way that the theater arts community can do it."

(A separate benefit event under the "Brave New World" umbrella, "The 24 Hour Plays" presented Monday at the Minetta Lane Theater, will be the culmination of a 24-hour workshop of writers, directors, actors and staff.)

But how to get everyone together for three days? And whose idea was this?

It was the brainchild of playwright J. Dakota Powell, who lost a relative in the collapse of the World Trade Center. About a month after the attacks, she said, "a play popped out of me." Called "Exodus," it reflects Powell's heritage: Her grandfather was a Harvard physicist who helped develop the atom bomb; her Chinese Japanese mother had to evacuate Tokyo as a child because of U.S. firebombing of the city.

"So I wrote a piece that interweaves monologues about my family, because I am East and West," Powell said. Although the specifics differ, the conflict in "Exodus" suggests a new East-West cultural conflict behind last year's attacks.

Soon, enlisting the help of a co-organizer, director Erica Gould, Powell began to call writer friends who might also want to express themselves.

They included screenwriter and playwright John Patrick Shanley, who contributed "Alive," a song to which he had written the lyrics.

When Powell approached Shanley, "she was bandying about many, many people I had heard of. I just didn't know if she'd gone off her medication," Shanley joked. "It seemed a little farfetched to me. Then she told me it would be at Town Hall, and I said I guess she's going to do it."

Major actors began to sign on once "we had a critical mass of playwrights," Powell said. Networking and sheer serendipity also played a part: Ivey and Uhry were approached independently, and Uhry specifically asked to write something for Ivey, who had starred in his "Driving Miss Daisy" and "The Last Night of Ballyhoo." The result is "The Other Line."

Certainly no source was more unusual than Ensign Charles Evered of the Navy Reserve, whose "Adopt a Sailor" will feature Neuwirth as a downtown gallery owner who witnesses the attacks. Her university professor husband doesn't, and he responds to the events very differently from his wife--a sure sign of marital trouble ahead. And yes, there is a sailor (Neil Patrick Harris), in town for the annual Fleet Week, who is "adopted" for dinner by the couple.

Creating "Adopt a Sailor" had a liberating effect on Evered. A produced playwright and assistant professor of communications at Emerson College in Boston, he was, he acknowledges, traumatized by having been at ground zero on Navy business two days after the attack: "It was that experience of being on the site and seeing what I saw that changed me for the rest of my life."

So he shied away from grappling with those events again. "Then I had a kind of give-and-take with my wife, who thought it would be healthy to deal with it on some level," Evered said.

"And by the next morning, I had a first draft."

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