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AFTER THE FALL WITH `THE GUYS,' THE FIRST DRAMATIC PIECE ABOUT 9/11K, TIM ROBBINS AND HELEN HUNT SEEK TO HELP AUDIENCES HEAL.

Byline: Evan Henerson Theater Writer

On Sept. 11, 2001, longtime friends Tim Robbins and Helen Hunt were on separate coasts. Robbins was in Los Angeles, preparing to open the 20th anniversary season of his Hollywood-based theater, the Actors' Gang. Hunt, a New Yorker like Robbins, was eight blocks north of the World Trade Center.

``I had a whole day of being evacuated, of running into the streets and being terrified like the rest of the world,'' recalls Hunt, who will co- star with Robbins in the post-9/11-themed play ``The Guys'' opening this week. ``I had a friend booked on Flight 11, but who, an hour earlier, decided to take another flight.

``Everybody has a story like that,'' she continues. `` 'How close were you?' 'Were you there?' 'Did you know somebody there?' We're all dealing with the pain of being too close or the ache of being too far away.''

Robbins was too far away. He started driving back to New York the following day and immediately joined the relief efforts. He has since become close with several New York City firefighters.

``These are very proud men, very stellar, very upright, and they very much take pride in being able to control their emotions and work through tragedy,'' says Robbins, who plays softball with company members from the firefighters near his home. ``This one is so big that they need help, and getting them to admit that they need help has been a huge undertaking.''

Volunteering twice

Earlier this year, Robbins saw actor Bill Murray in an ofroadway play and found a project worthy of a long-term commitment. That would be ``The Guys,'' Anne Nelson's two-character play about a fire captain who loses most of his regimen in the Sept. 11 attacks and the editor who helps him prepare their eulogies.

``I immediately said to the people that run the theater, that if they needed me when Murray (and co-star Sigourney Weaver) finished, I'm there for it,'' says Robbins. ``I've seen how this play works as a healing. In New York, at pretty much every performance, we've had people who lost close friends in the World Trade Center, firefighters' widows. We would stay after to talk to these guys, and it was important thing for them to be honored in that way.''

Robbins is still with the play. After performing the role in New York, first with Swoosie Kurtz and later with his companion, Susan Sarandon, Robbins got permission from Nelson to bring ``The Guys'' to the Gang. He'll star with Hunt for the first three weeks of the production's run, beginning Thursday. Robbins and Sarandon will perform ``The Guys'' at the Edinburgh Festival (aka the Fringe) and at Dublin's Abbey Theatre.

Director Robert Egan, who will stage ``The Guys,'' said Robbins' devotion to the play is hardly surprising ``given Tim's interest in theater that is of this particular genre, theater about the real world, and real events.''

Also, says playwright Nelson, Robbins meshes well with the play.

``He conveys an Irish-American quality, and that means both depth of emotion and humor, which is very important for this piece,'' Nelson says of Robbins. ``Bill Murray used to say that humor is what lets the audience breathe.''

``Tim Robbins, I think, is a very natural actor, and that's something else that serves the play very well,'' she adds. ``I've never seen Helen Hunt, but I think the combination should be very good and very interesting.''

Dealing with it

The two actors - who co-stared in Robbins' film directorial debut, ``Bob Roberts'' - agreed that cathartic works of art were bound to emerge out of the Sept. 11 catastrophe. In a way, says Hunt, it is fitting that one of the first should be ``The Guys.''

``I feel it's very early to be writing about this subject. That's why we're not seeing pieces about it yet,'' says Hunt. ``I think it felt very right that this would be the first piece I would read. It's simply about the very first step after this happens - about writing eulogies for firefighters. Anything beyond that, it would be way too early to conjecturalize.''

Nelson, who teaches at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, felt she needed to write something about the attacks. At a benefit dinner one night, she found herself seated next to Jim Simpson, artistic director of the Flea Theatre ofroadway. The Flea, located blocks from Ground Zero, was forced to shut down for a month following the Sept. 11 attacks. Simpson was looking for a new play to reopen the theater - something that addressed the tragedy and could help bring the community together.

Nelson wrote ``The Guys'' in just over a week, and the Flea production opened in February with Murray and Weaver (Simpson's wife). As with the A.R. Gurney play ``Love Letters'' and Eve Ensler's ``The Vagina Monologues,'' celebrity cast members rotate in and out of the production at three-week intervals. The play will be published this summer, and a film version with Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia is currently under way in Manhattan. ``The Guys'' is considered a staged reading. Discounted tickets are available for firefighters and police officers.

Contemporary though it may be, ``The Guys'' is not, Nelson contends ``a terror play.''

``It's about how people seek ways to be supportive of each other,'' she says.

``A lot of people who were there or are from New York want to feel more connected to the experience,'' agrees Hunt. ``I didn't see the piece, but I can only imagine what it must have been like to see it in Tribeca. It will be a very different experience here, and I'm really interested to see what the room feels like.''

Immediately after winning the 1998 best-actress Oscar for ``As Good as It Gets,'' Hunt performed in a Lincoln Center Theatre production of Shakespeare's ``Twelfth Night.'' Then Hollywood beckoned, and Hunt made a slew of movies, including ``Pay It Forward'' ``Cast Away'' ``What Women Want'' and Woody Allen's ``The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.''

But Hunt, who acted in an Actors' Gang production of ``Methusalem'' in the mid 1980s - was ready to return to the live theater, even if only for a temporary gig.

``I'm between roles right now, so it worked out perfectly,'' she says. ``This piece felt very true to me. I still feel very physically rattled from being as close (to the World Trade Center) as I was. This is a piece of material that will help me deal with those feelings.''

THE GUYS

Where: The Actors' Gang, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; with Tim Robbins and Helen Hunt through July 28 (future casts to be announced).

Tickets: Sold out. Some tickets are available for Wednesday pay-what-you can performances. Those tickets go on sale at 6 p.m. Call (323) 465-0566.

CAPTION(S):

3 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) Stages of recovery

Tim Robbins brings Sept. 11 drama to Actor's Gang - and he and Helen Hunt bring star power

(2) Tim Robbins

Gus Ruelas/Staff Photographer

(3) Helen Hunt
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Jul 9, 2002
Words:1179
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