Ground Zero Tolerance

One of the first cultural creations stemming from the terrorist attacks of 9/11 was a play by Anne Nelson called The Guys. Starring Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray, it opened less than three months later at New York City’s Flea Theatre — just blocks from Ground Zero. It can’t have been easy to perform or to watch.

But Nelson knew she had a story to tell. A free-lance journalist, she was asked by a fire captain who had lost eight comrades in the collapse of the World Trade Center to help him compose eulogies. After meeting Jim Simpson, the Flea’s artistic director (and Weaver’s spouse) at a charity event, she was encouraged to sculpt the resulting material into a play. The captain agreed, and his tributes to The Guys plays at the Carlsen Center through Saturday.

Actor and director Tim Robbins saw the show early in the run and later appeared in it. His Los Angeles theater group — the Actors’ Gang — has adopted the show, and the Carlsen production is part of its tour, starring Robbins’ sister, Adele, and Brian Powell.

Tim Robbins tells the Pitch, “When I did it, you could feel this real importance — why it was needed, why it needed to happen right now. It still has that feeling. After the shows, I’d hang out, and inevitably there’d be five or six firefighters hanging out, and I’d ask them about the friends they’d lost. It was extraordinary to hear those stories from these people in that time period.

“Each time I did it or saw it, there was a palpable sense of its importance,” Robbins continues. “Not in a kind of self-righteous way, which would be deadly, but in a real visceral, human way. When I was performing it, I’d see these proud, tough men holding it in, but their bodies were shaking, sobbing, as they were finally hearing testimony as to the heroism of these guys and finally allowing this grief out.

“The play was important in that way because it probably led a lot of stoic men to counseling of some kind,” he adds. “It opened the door of these emotions they’d been repressing. It was a way for them to do it — not in front of their wives, not in group therapy. But in a dark room, they see a story that gives witness to their friends.”

Robbins says the play reflects a country united around its collective mourning — which makes the events of the subsequent two years all the more galling to him.

“What’s really tragic for me about this whole thing is that someone didn’t realize how unified we were as a country. Someone didn’t build on that and say, CEHey, we can do amazing things with that unity. We can rebuild this country. Volunteerism can teach every child to read. There won’t be one kid hungry. There won’t be one sandlot not turned into a park.’

“A proper leader could have done that,” he says. “But no, what did we get done? We were encouraged to shop. That was our patriotism: Go out and shop. Run up your credit card and shop.”

But Robbins remembers what it was like just before that switch. “I saw for a brief moment what could be.”