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Play Honors New York City Firefighters

The September 11 terrorist attacks have been the subject of dozens of art and photo exhibits, books, recordings, and television shows. The first theater piece to address the tragedy on stage is at a repertory theater in New York, just blocks from the site of the World Trade Center.

The play, The Guys, by first-time playwright Anne Nelson, examines the relationship between New Yorkers experiencing different levels of grief in the wake of last year's terrorist attacks.

The Guys referred to in the title are New York City firefighters. Three hundred forty-three of them perished on September 11. The play is a conversation between a New York Fire Department captain and a journalist called upon to help him craft eulogies for the eight men lost from his company.

Bill Irwin, who plays Captain Nick in the workshop production, says, as an actor, he perceives playing the role as a kind of civic duty. "There's a job to be done," he says. "It's not so much a professional opportunity or a career choice. Here, there's a usefulness. There's a lifetime of practicing for stuff that we do, and here's some way it can be of use."

Mr. Irwin touches on a sub-theme of the play, the role of artists and intellectuals in a city where, suddenly, the only people who matter are the life-savers, the survivors, and the dead. How can an artist publicly address a tragic event, without appearing to capitalize on that tragedy?

Director Jim Simpson, who says with a sigh of relief that firefighters who have seen the play have been receptive to it, initially did not want to address September 11. "Right after September 11th, I mean, forget it. Everyone was in shock," he says. "This theater shut down. We stopped all of our activity. The last thing I was thinking about was entertainment and about doing a show. When we re-opened later, a young guy in the company, he's 25, he said, 'we have to address this event,' and I looked at him, and I thought, 'you've got to be crazy.'"

Then Mr. Simpson met Anne Nelson, who recounted her experiences helping a fire department captain write eulogies for firefighters killed in the terrorist attack.

Mr. Simpson suggested she try and dramatize the encounter. Nine days later, she handed him a script for The Guys. Ms. Nelson, a journalism professor at New York's Columbia University, says writing the play was cathartic. She said, "I felt an urge to write something, but I didn't know what I had to offer that wasn't being covered in yards and yards of newsprint. When the idea of the play arose, I thought, 'Maybe this is a new place to put my reactions and everything that I'm feeling now.'"

Film star Sigourney Weaver portrays Ms. Nelson in the play. The involvement of Ms. Weaver and well-known film actor Bill Murray, who originated the role of the fire captain, won the play its initial attention.

But the piece, now into its second month, is still filling the Flea Theater's intimate space every night.

The play has already been extended once, and another extension is being considered.