Stages of mourning

In a fire captain's loss, journalist Anne Nelson found the words for how Sept. felt. Her play 'The Guys' speaks for and has won the heart of New York.

May 15, 2002|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - The story began with a journalist and a fire captain - two strangers who met in a Brooklyn living room one Saturday in September with a grim task at hand.

On the morning of Sept. 11, the captain lost eight firefighters, and when faced with writing the sudden flurry of eulogies, words escaped him. That's when a friend arranged for former war correspondent Anne Nelson to help.

Over five hours, Nelson applied her interviewing skills in an unconventional way, slowly drawing out the captain's recollections of the lives of his men. He talked about one who had been an older-brother figure, another who had just joined his crew, peppering the afternoon with moments that were emotional and, at times, tearful.

When Nelson emerged from the apartment, her reporter's instinct kicked in.

"Part of me was thinking, `What would it be like to do a magazine feature on something like this?'" said Nelson, director of the international program at the Columbia University School of Journalism. "Part of it was feeling that something had really come through in those eulogies. But I just knew I wouldn't because of the privacy issue. So I just kind of discarded the thought."

Then, in a quintessentially New York way, the story came back and nibbled at Nelson. She attended a dinner party and happened to be seated next to Jim Simpson, artistic director of The Flea, a tiny theater in Tribeca close to shutting because New Yorkers were staying away from Lower Manhattan. The two talked about her experience with the fire captain and later, after a burst of e-mail exchanges, the 47-year-old journalist wrote her first play in nine straight nights.

The result was The Guys, a moving dramatization of Nelson's afternoon with the captain. The play, whose characters are slightly fictionalized composites of the firefighters, has become something of a cultural phenomenon. It's struck such a chord with usually jaded New Yorkers that even celebrities like Hilary Swank have had to wait weeks to purchase the $55 seats.

It has rivaled The Producers as one of the hottest tickets in town, and the play's two roles have been equally sought-after, with A-list actors like Susan Sarandon and Sigourney Weaver taking pay cuts to be a part of it.

"Nobody's doing this for their careers; nobody's doing this for money," said Amy Irving, who is getting $400 a week for her current five-week run, in which she co-stars with Tom Wopat. "I just thought it was an incredibly wonderful piece to be performing - not just on the importance level of acting or entertaining. For a lot of New Yorkers, it's kind like, you go along with your life and you don't know what to do with a lot of feelings that we had [after Sept. 11]. This play talks about what New Yorkers went through that day and what we've been going through. It's like therapy."

Since Sept. 11, the day's monumental tragedies have gradually wended their way into popular culture. This week, HBO aired Telling Nicholas, a documentary that followed the family of a 7-year-old boy whose mother died in the World Trade Center collapse. PBS and the History Channel are among other broadcasters that have Sept. 11 pieces in the works.

Nelson's play, though, differs from most of these shows. Instead of focusing on the firefighters as heroes on that day, The Guys memorializes them by celebrating the minutiae of their lives - the fact that one firefighter was known for his barbed critiques of firehouse food and that another was constantly teased for his mantra, "Work, church and home."

"I had a strong reaction when I read it," said Simpson, who in 1997 founded The Flea, a 75-seat, off-off-Broadway theater, and is married to Sigourney Weaver. "I cried about five times. I felt like this was a way to put a face on some of these faceless guys that made the sacrifice for all of us. When I got the play, I came home and said, `Wow, Sigourney, it's really, really unusual.'"

Weaver leaped at the chance to play Joan; Simpson called friend Bill Murray about the part of Nick the fire captain, and the play opened in December for what initially was to be a 10-day run. Simpson and Nelson took no money; Weaver and Murray accepted $3 a day (enough for two $1.50 subway rides). All proceeds went to saving the theater, which quickly became the artistic cause of the moment because of its proximity to Ground Zero.

When the show sold out before opening night, Simpson knew they were onto something. Soon, actors like Sarandon and Tim Robbins inquired about doing the play, and Simpson extended its run, with different actors rotating into the parts.

Nelson, a soft-spoken, elfin woman who looks more like a determined Anne Archer (of Fatal Attraction fame) than a Columbia professor, said she intended the play to be a historical document, not unlike the work she produced as a freelance journalist covering wars in Central America.

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