The September books in the Playbill Readers’ Circle offer snapshots of recent history in two very different ways. The main selection is the latest installment in The Best Plays series of beloved theatre yearbooks that dates back to 1919. The playscript selection is as topical as the headlines: Anne Nelson’s The Guys, about firefighters who died in the World Trade Center disaster.
The Guys (Random House) by Anne Nelson.
On the day the World Trade Center towers fell, I was standing in Times Square, amid the frantic crowds and dust-covered police cars screaming down Broadway, and I remember thinking, "Plays will be written about this."
The first was The Guys, which sprang open at Off Off-Broadway’s Flea Theatre, just blocks from the disaster site, exactly 12 weeks to the day after the attacks. Published just in time for the anniversary — and the Toronto Film Festival debut of the film — the script conveys the quiet power of Nelson’s script about a writer who is hired to help a fire chief compose eulogies for his lost men.
Though we get to know a little bit about the writer and her experiences in the Third World, and a little bit about the chief and how he survived that terrible day, the characters with the most dramatic heft are the dead firefighters. Only a handful are mentioned, but we learn about their hobbies, their family lives, their devotion to firefighting. One built a workbench at the firehouse so solidly that everyone expects it will last forever. The play doesn’t try very hard to make sense of why the terrorists attacked New York; its function is almost purely elegiac. In doing so, it also recalls the age of topical theatre: plays like As Thousands Cheer, which helped people make sense of the Great Depression, or examined war fever (Idiot’s Delight), the rise of Hitler (Watch on the Rhine), the Vietnam War ( Sticks and Bones), McCarthyism (The Crucible).
A parade of major Hollywood and Broadway names have been trooping to The Flea in TriBeCa to spend a few days or weeks playing the two roles. Sigourney Weaver, who originated the role of the writer, re-creates it for the film, and was scheduled to take part in a free performance on 9/11 at Lincoln Center.
In addition to the script, this volume is fleshed out with Nelson’s preface about her own 9/11 experience and how she came to write the play; plus an author’s note, a director’s note, an afterword, and suggested further reading on the subject.
By piecing together eulogies for the three fallen firefighters, The Guys serves as a monument in words for everyone who died that day — ordinary Joes and Janes just pursuing their lives before evil snuffed them out. It’s the theatrical equivalent of the Vietnam War Memorial statue of the three soldiers who stand for all.
Who Will Buy: People who know that theatre offers the best way to help understand the great tragedies of life. People who have seen the play or are considering seeing it. People who are planning to see the movie and want to have the original script in hand.
"Best Plays 2000-2001" (Limelight Editions) edited by Jeffrey Eric Jenkins.
In the early 1970's, they were cleaning out the library at my father’s place of work, and he spotted a book that he thought I might like : one of the early "Best Plays" volumes, known in those days as the "Burns Mantle Theatre Yearbook" for the critic who founded it back in 1919. I bought every edition since then, finding them not only fun to read, but an indispensable research resource in the preparation of my own theatre books, news and features. Not only do these yearbooks include the Best Plays (as chosen by the editor), but half the volume is devoted to stats on original productions on Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off Off-Broadway and regionally, plus cast changes, touring companies, award winners, recordings, cast albums, and, the cherry on top, caricatures by Al Hirschfeld.
New editor Jeffrey Eric Jenkins has kept all the latter, but made an important change in the book’s foundation: the Best Plays themselves. Mantle and his successors had a policy of including synopses of the Plays, along with photos and snippets of dialogue. Jenkins has abandoned the synopses in favor of thoughtful essays by noted critics and other theatre folk, examining the subjects, themes and debut productions of the plays. For example, professor and director Robert Brustein writes on Adam Rapp’s Nocturne; Bruce Weber of The New York Times goes into detail on David Auburn’s Pulitzer-winner Proof.
Here are the other titles chosen by Jenkins as the 2000-01 "Best Plays":
Boy Gets Girl by Rebecca Gilman (Chris Jones, essayist)
The Invention of Love by Tom Stoppard (Charles Wright, essayist)
King Hedley II by August Wilson (Christopher Rawson, essayist)
Lobby Hero by Kenneth Lonergan (Tish Dace, essayist)
Mnemonic by Complicite (John Istel, essayist)
The Play About the Baby by Edward Albee (Christine Dolen, essayist)
The Producers by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan (Julius Novick, essayist)
Urinetown by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann (Jeffrey Sweet, essayist)
This edition is dedicated to Otis Guernsey Jr. (1918-2001), who edited the series for nearly four decades and died earlier this year. The series appears to be in very capable hands.
Who Will Buy: People who want a keepsake of the first full season of the 21st century. People who already have previous "Best Plays" editions and want to continue their set. Theatre fans who want a scrapbook of a busy season. Theatre fans who missed the plays and want a deeper sense of what they were about and what they meant.