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Writing for the Sake of ‘The Guys’

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

There were more eulogies to write after that long Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn. Nelson and her captain--who was off-duty on the morning the towers fell--continued to meet during the next month to find words for the men he had lost. The story of their collaboration would make a good magazine article, she thought. But she could never write it because it would violate privacies she refuses to breach--including the identity of the captain and his ladder company.

On Oct. 18, Nelson attended a charity dinner in a complex of buildings that a month before had served as a makeshift morgue. Sitting next to her was Simpson. His nonprofit theater company was facing bankruptcy because of forced closures and dwindling attendance following the terrorist attacks.

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Simpson and Nelson began to e-mail each other. The professor told the veteran director about the captain and sent him one of the eulogies. “That is a play,” he said.

Nelson went to the firehouse to ask the captain if it was OK to dramatize what they had experienced together. “I said, ‘I want people to know about these guys.’ He said, ‘Yeah, so do I.’ ” It took Nelson about a week, working late at night in a room where her books share space with her kids’ Legos. By day, during her subway commute, she would read from the copy of Aristotle’s “Poetics” she used in freshman English at Yale. It’s the 2,400-year-old Ur-text for playwrights, laying out the principles of effective drama.

One night, she started to laugh as she typed. It suddenly hit her that she was sinning against her own journalistic code.

“I just made up a quote!” she thought, triumphantly. “And I’m supposed to make up quotes!”

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She wanted to fill a gap in the public telling of Sept. 11.

“New Yorkers were experiencing profound grief and loss, and yet the media culture, especially television, moved almost instantly into combative posture: ‘America at War.’ It wasn’t capturing what I and the people around me were actually feeling.”

Nelson was not exactly a theatrical novice. Performing in musicals was a big part of her life in high school in Stillwater, Okla., and at Yale. But after earning her bachelor’s degree in American studies in 1976, she became a reporter. Central America was her beat. Until she became a mother 13 years ago, she often went where bullets flew and the sight of headless corpses marred the roadsides.

She e-mailed the script to Simpson, and he read it through tears. His wife, actress Sigourney Weaver, took the part of Joan and recruited her friend Bill Murray to be Nick.

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The air still smelled of smoke on opening night at the Flea, which is a few blocks north of ground zero. The big test, for Nelson, was how firefighters would react. They approved. Families of the dead approved. The play continues to draw well, and a $500,000 film version, directed by Simpson and starring Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia, is being rushed toward completion in hopes it can be released by Sept. 11.

Random House will publish “The Guys” next month; the book will include a long afterword by Nelson about the New York Fire Department and how it has gone on since the day it lost 343 men. Her captain gave the last of the eulogies she wrote with him about two months ago--"The Guys” says eight men from his ladder company died; that, according to Nelson, is a slight deviation from fact to protect identities. Firehouses have become her frequent haunts. “I am becoming known as somebody who comes in and cadges a cup of coffee.”

Robbins and Sarandon plan to take “The Guys” to Ireland and Scotland in August for a handful of performances. Nelson says the BBC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. will air radio versions of the play on Sept. 11. The Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati will open a production in September.

So far, Nelson says, she has not made much money from “The Guys,” but she is “struggling really hard” over what to do if she does.

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She marvels that a new door could have opened at this point in her life as a writer. “Being 47, you think, ‘Oh, I know what’s available, I know what the possibilities are.’ And you wake up and there’s this whole range you never dreamed of.” She tells herself not to get a big head, not to be changed in ways that are not right for her.

And maybe, when she drops in for those occasional cups of coffee--dismal stuff, according to one of the laugh lines in “The Guys"--somebody invokes a saying she says she often hears at firehouses. It comes from Father Mychal Judge, the department chaplain who was administering last rites to a downed firefighter when he was killed by a falling chunk of the World Trade Center. She finds it a useful reminder.

“ ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him what you’re planning to do tomorrow.’ That’s just written all over this.”

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“THE GUYS,” the Actors’ Gang, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Dates: Today, 2 p.m., Tuesdays- Thursdays, 7 p.m.; starting Aug. 6, Tuesdays- Fridays, 7 p.m. Price: $40, $15 for firefighters. Pay what you will on Wednesdays. Phone: (323) 465-0566.

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Mike Boehm is a Times staff writer.


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