The first time a character in “The Humans” made a reference to the fall of the World Trade Center, I reflexively flinched. Even after more than 14 years, plays that fictionalize 9/11 have inevitably risked a bad landing on the third rail of theatergoers’ emotions.
For the first time in my experience, however, a playwright — that is, Stephen Karam — uses the catastrophe in a way that feels essential to the broader lives of his rich characters. In this funny and brutal tragicomedy, which transferred from Off-Broadway to Broadway last month, the ongoing effects of the terrorist attack mingle with the anxious molecules of everyday Americans in ways that never once feel sensationalized or exploitative.
So I started wondering. Has something happened — a mysterious interval of mourning — that has freed the theater to acknowledge the catastrophe that defined the new century as dramatic material?
Now we have news of a musical — yes, a Broadway musical — set against the backdrop of that day. And responses from early productions at the La Jolla Playhouse and the Seattle Repertory Theatre have been enthusiastic.
“Come From Away,” which opens here next spring after an autumn in Washington and Toronto, involves what one might call theatrical collateral damage. Written and composed by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, it is set in Gander, Newfoundland, the small town where 38 planes — and 6,579 passengers — were forced to land when air traffic was frozen.
Christopher Ashley, the accomplished artistic director of La Jolla, describes the show as “a story about connections. It’s about how people reach out and take care of each other.” Since terror threats now permeate all reality, he believes, “we can’t just say that was that and go on with our lives . . . there’s value in actually looking at one of the beautiful human moments” that really happened.
In Karam’s play, the writer says the words 9/11 are not spoken. “I never used them, but they are a major part of the fabric of the show.” As Karam told me in a recent interview, he is hardly unaware of the negative possibilities in the subject matter.
“I’d feel nauseous if anyone feels that I’m trying to take ownership” of the attack and has “kind of recoiled myself” whenever he sensed that in any entertainment. “I appreciate that feeling.”
On the other hand, he asks, “isn’t it equally bizarre to not find ways to write about the event of our lives? I think most of us don’t think about it all the time, but it casts a pretty big shadow. It’s not necessarily our job to wait and let the next generation write about the fear and anxiety that’s left. So I think maybe it’s OK if writers try to track what it feels like — how deep are the wounds, the damage and the scars.” Of course, he adds sardonically, “we could just wait for a British writer to do it and that can be transferred to Broadway.”
This is not to suggest that all playwrights have avoided the subject, just that other work hasn’t risen to the level of the atrocity. Perhaps that day — like, for many, the Holocaust — resists dramatization by the mere human imagination.
Anne Nelson wrote what was probably the first 9/11 play, “The Guys,” a useful of-the-moment piece about a woman interviewing a fire captain on the loss of his team. Neil LaBute, the dark star of the American theater, has written at least three plays, including the 2002 drama “The Mercy Seat,” which — perhaps too soon — had a LaBute twist about a married man who considers pretending to have died in the towers so he can run off with his lover. My favorite is Richard Nelson’s “Sweet and Sad,” set on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, which is inextricably part of a four-play cycle.
In an article about the 10th anniversary, LaBute told the AP that “Playwrights should ask questions, but only the questions they want to ask and in the way they want to ask them. From my point of view, no subject is taboo or too sacred to discuss or write about.”
As the advertising world learned from the outrage after the last Super Bowl, some subjects — especially the burning of the towers — are not meant to sell tourists on Colonial Williamsburg. Ashley says he and the producers of “Come From Away” are thinking hard about the marketing of their show: “We would never use that image in any way. It’s really potent.”
And yet, he adds, “People have to know that it’s set on that day. We can’t spring it on them. But this is a piece about people in that place at that moment and how they came together.” Maybe it is time to flinch less.