Playwright depicts six characters after 9/11


On that day, maybe a half-hour after the planes hit, Betty, a woman in her late 50s, alone in her house in Oneida, New York, just wanted to talk on the phone to somebody, anybody, in New York City.

“Maybe it would make them feel better if they got a call from somebody upstate or someplace. I mean, just in case they were even more scared than me . . . But I didn’t know anybody down there. You’d think I’d know someone. I mean, there’s eight million people down there . . . “

Then she had an inspiration.

What if she called her own phone number tacked onto one of the area codes of New York City? She looked them up, picked out 212, took a deep breath and dialed 1-212 plus her own number. The phone rang six times before someone — a woman — answered.

“She asked: ‘Who is this?’ I finally told her, and that I was callin’ to see if she was all right . . . You might not believe this, but I swear I could feel her smile right through the phone, and then she said: ‘Well, that’s very nice of you. Thank you.’ “

Betty is the first of six disparate characters who tell their stories of where they were and what they did on and after September 11, 2001 — characters out of the head of Jonathan Bell, as put to the stage in “Portraits,” written by him, directed by Mark Pinter (no relation to Harold Pinter), in an open-ended run at the Union Square Theatre, 100 East 17th Street.

Bell, himself, was at his house in Connecticut that day, working away at a script — a comedy — that has remained unfinished that day to this. As the Betty he created says in the play: “Everything was fine and then it changed . . . so fast. It all changed so fast.”

Bell knew he had to write something about 9/11, but for the longest time he didn’t know how, or where to start. And then, one day, through the Legacy Project on the web, he was reminded of Guernica and Picasso.

On April 27, 1937, Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe bombed and strafed the little Basque town of Guernica for three hours, killing or wounding some 1,600 people, both as a war game — target practice — and a favor to Gen. Francisco Franco.

Four days later, a million people took to the streets of Paris in an anti-Fascist May Day demonstration. One of them was Pablo Picasso, who had lately been in a blue funk, both in his work and in his life.

“He gets so fired up,” says Jonathan Bell, “that he runs through this huge crowd to his studio and starts working right away from stark newspaper pictures — for instance the screaming woman with her hands raised to heaven. And he did this whole great painting in three months!

“I’m haunted by Picasso. I mean, I’m not Picasso but, like Picasso, I felt impelled to do this play, and here it is.”

Unfortunately, 9/11 was not a war game but something else entirely. Bell didn’t lose anybody in the towers, but one of his neighbors lost her sister and another neighbor had worked across the street from the WTC but got out okay, though covered with ash.

As the days passed, Bell remembered something he’d once read in the New York Times Magazine about a person who had called their own telephone number on another area code — that became the imagined Betty — and he kept hearing the rumor, or tale, “that was floating around everywhere” about some guy who was shacked up with a girlfriend when his wife thought he was at his desk in the World Trade Center. That real or fictional gentleman makes it into “Portraits” as an imagined Daniel.

Then there is Arifa, a young Muslim American woman who “buckled under the same grief that every American felt that day”; and John, a registered nurse who came straight down from Quincy, Mass., and worked as a rescue volunteer for 24 straight hours until ordered to get out and get some sleep; and, finally, Ruth, an older woman, enraged by the death (to age and overwork) of her husband, and Nancy, a beautiful younger woman, enraged by the death (to 9/11) of her husband — their anger and loneliness intersecting, making for healing of a sort.

The actors are Darrie Lawrence (Betty), Victor Slezak (Daniel), Anjali Bhimani (Arifa), Matte Osian (John), Roberta Maxwell (Ruth), Dana Reeve (Nancy), and Christopher Coucill as Andrew, the artist who draws all these portraits and brings them to life.

Jonathan Bell was born Jan. 1, 1952, in Melrose, Mass., and grew up in Elizabeth, Maine, a suburb of Portland. His father was a builder and architect. An English major at Bowdoin College, he took his senior year at Smith College, where he got so interested in theater that he went back for another year of acting and plawriting.

“Moved to New York, went to Circle-in-the-Square theater school, acted for a while, found the situation overwhelming, kind of lost interest, met Ann Shellenberger, got married, moved to Connecticut, worked in real estate for 10 or 12 years, then, when the real-estate market went down, I said to my wife, who has a good job in the cosmetics business: ‘I don’t want to do real estate any more, and if you’re the breadwinner, I don’t mind at all.”

So he went back into acting, first at the 42nd Street Workshop.

On September 11, 2001, Bell was alone in the house in Connecticut except for 4-year-old Sam and Sam’s nanny. “I didn’t want Sam to watch the TV. He wouldn’t have understood it. Now, two years later, he’s 6 years old, and we’ve talked, and he understands that people died in those buildings that day.”

Maybe in not too many more years, Sam Bell will learn from “Portraits” — by inference, through those imaginary characters — just how many emotions his own father went through, that day and all the days thereafter. Maybe, after that, Sam will go someday to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid to take a good long look at the “Guernica” that this New Yorker, the one you’re reading, said goodbye to after his own good long look at it, when it went home to Spain in the fall of 1981.