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The Arts Respond: Theater faces brave new world with new works, classics

Sunday, September 08, 2002

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette drama editor

While theater is emotional and immediate, plays are slow in development. A play takes time to write, let alone get produced. And 9/11 is no single traumatic event but a complex mix of reactions, issues and fears, running from personal loss to cultural sensitivity, from heightened security to altered funding.

Gathering at Sardi's Restaurant in New York, actors rehearse a scene from "Adopt a Sailor" by Charles Evered, at left with arms folded, as part of "Brave New World," which will be performed Sept. 9-11 in Manhattan by members of the New York theater community. Len Cariou reads lines with Josh Radnor, center, and Bebe Neuwirth, far right. Behind them are actors Eli Wallach and Olympia Dukakis. (Toyokazu Kosugi, AP photo)

We quickly discovered that plays don't have to be written for the occasion to respond to 9/11. Pittsburgh Public Theater's "Medea" last October was a darker experience than it would have been just weeks earlier. A flashier example is Tony Kushner's "Homebody/Kabul," a play about the cultural chasm between the West and Afghanistan written well before the attacks but produced afterward. We take the current world with us into the theater, and plays adapt themselves accordingly.

Institutionally, though, 9/11 sent theater reeling, threatening the very existence of those most likely to respond, the feisty off-off-Broadway companies largely located in the vicinity of the World Trade Center. Some suffered physical damage; many saw grant money go elsewhere; all found audiences scarce.

Elsewhere, theatrical programming turned cautious. On Broadway, Stephen Sondheim revivals of "Assassins" and "Into the Woods" were affected -- one canceled, the other lightened. Here, Pittsburgh CLO reshuffled the season now completed, opting for an Americana theme, and 9/11 must have influenced the Public's decision to stage two commercial shows ("Driving Miss Daisy" and "Man of La Mancha") in the upcoming season.

One downtown Manhattan theater did mount a specific response. The Flea Theater in TriBeCa, seven blocks from Ground Zero, staged Anne Nelson's "The Guys." An editor and journalism professor who'd never written a play, she had been helping an FDNY captain write eulogies for all the men he had lost, when Flea's Jim Simpson suggested it could be a two-person play.

Nelson wrote it in just over a week, and "The Guys" opened 12 weeks to the day after 9/11, starring Simpson's wife, Sigourney Weaver, and her friend, Bill Murray; other stars have played it since. There's a paperback from Random House, and a movie of it starring Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia, will be released soon.

Simple in structure, "The Guys" wears its heart on its sleeve, but, like all theater, lets us express difficult emotions vicariously. And it supplies facts about the lives of the 343 firefighters who died, providing the comfort of the ordinary.

Most plays' response will be more subtle. At a New York panel in February on theatrical response to 9/11, critic Todd London spoke of a "growing conservatism and fear" in America and thus its theater. On the upside, London predicted "we'll see more contemplative work, less about funny sets, more about spiritual connections. ... It's a huge crisis, but crisis is what theater does."

In its current issue, American Theatre magazine discusses a dozen plays in direct and indirect response, including Neil LaBute's "The Mercy Seat" (an adulterous relationship on 9/12), Robert Lepage's "Zulu Time" (26 unsettling scenes of air travel, Alpha to Zulu) and Brian Zucha's "We Have Some Planes" (dance theater based on 9/11 conversations between pilots and flight controllers). It also prints the full text of Christopher Shinn's "Where Do We Live," about how we conceive "the other."

That last seems to be a major preoccupation of response plays so far: Who are we, as Americans and individuals? How does the world see us? Why?

There's a good taste of this in "Brave New World -- American Theatre Responds to 9/11," a three-day theatrical marathon of many components set for Sept. 9-11 at Manhattan's Town Hall. In Edwin Sanchez's "Pops," a young Hispanic-American reassesses his father, who was a bus boy at Windows on the World. Jonathan Marc Sherman's "Ribbon in the Sky" presents concurrent monologues by male and female twins born when the Twin Towers were built, setting up a compelling counterpoint. In Charles Evered's play, "Adopt a Sailor," a wealthy Manhattan couple played by Bebe Neuwirth and Len Cariou use the visit of a young sailor as the focus for conflicting views of 9/11.

"A Song for LaChanze," written by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens for the singer LaChanze, whose husband died in the attacks, may be direct, but "Ribbon in the Sky" is an oblique commentary you couldn't have imagined until the artist created it.

That's what theater will hope to do.

Reach Christopher Rawson at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.

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