downtownexpress.com

Volume 19 • Issue 17 | September 8 - 14, 2006


Tim Cummings as Nick in “The Guys,” Anne Nelson’s 9/11 play that opened in December 2001 with Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver. It’s being re-mounted this year for the fifth anniversary of the attacks.

Five years later, still one of ‘The Guys’

By Tim Cummings

Five years ago, around this time of year, I was working as an assistant at a design firm two blocks from the World Trade Center. At the end of each day I would walk north to The Flea Theater, where I was a member of the “Bats,” the nickname for the 20-member company at the Flea, founded in 1996 by director Jim Simpson. We, The Bats, were New York’s most seminal young actors, writers, directors and designers, and Monday, September 10, 2001 was the end of our summer season. To celebrate, we held our cast party that night at our “Cheers” bar around the corner, the Irish pub SJ South & Sons. I stumbled out an hour or so before daylight, blissfully drunk, but rather melancholy because the summer was over and (as happens for an actor after a long-running and fulfilling gig) started thinking “What now?” It was 4:30 am, and while waiting for a cab, I stared up at the Twin Towers in the distance, silhouetted by the glow of impending daylight. Four hours later, when I attempted to peel my hung-over body out of bed and call in sick to work, that melancholy “What now?” I’d pondered earlier suddenly had a whole new meaning.

Like every business in the neighborhood, The Flea Theater was hit hard by the tragedy. The whole area had been closed off — too much smoke, debris, chaos — and the fates of so many people were hanging in the balance. It was around this time that Jim Simpson met Anne Nelson, the director of the International Program at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism at a benefit dinner for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. She told him of her experience helping a Fire Captain write eulogies for the men from his Firehouse who had died in the attacks. One of the Flea’s company members had already been talking about doing a play that spoke to the situation directly, and Jim told her that she should turn her experience into one. Never having written a play before, she simply set out to capture what she had been through. The result was “The Guys,” which was rehearsed through November with Sigourney Weaver (Jim Simpson’s wife) as Joan, the Journalist, and Bill Murray as Nick, the Fire Captain. It opened December 4th, twelve weeks after September 11.

Jim told the company he would be auditioning members to Standby (Understudy) Sigourney and Bill. Usually, I’m excited about auditions — they’re a total rush. This? No Way. The stars were in their 50s, and I was only 28. I was sweating, shaking, and completely miserable, despite the fact that my preparation had been totally organic. My dad is a retired Fire Lieutenant, and I remembered what it was like to grow up around firemen. It didn’t occur to me later that there were reasons for my extreme nervousness. This was the big time: A-List actors, a powerful play that I instinctively knew would be a seminal theatrical event, and the possibility of performing alongside one of my life-long idols, the incomparable Sigourney Weaver. I’m unreservedly zealous about my work, so any opportunity to deepen my knowledge, take risks — hey, where do I sign up?  But I had also been suffering under feelings of extreme helplessness, and the one way that I thought I could make sense of this event, to heal, and offer strength and not become bitter, was to land this role. It was that important.

When Jim offered me the job, I was relieved. After a week of watching Sigourney and Bill tackle the material so fearlessly, Jim scheduled the first Understudy rehearsal for Sigourney’s Standby, Irene Walsh, another Bat, and me. I still remember Jim’s comments after we cleared the first few beats. “Tim, who is this ‘general sad guy’ you’re giving me? And where’s your accent? You know these guys, talk like they talk.” In a sense, he was echoing one of Joan’s lines in the play, when she says, “You know, Nick, you want to give people someone they’ll recognize, not just a plaster saint.” After that, I realized I could create a character of my own, and ignore the fact that the Fire Captain character was a real person; that Bill Murray was already acting the part; and that I couldn’t get my father out of my head. I took pieces from every part of my life — my childhood, growing up with firemen, my father’s mannerisms and emotionality, and the countless firemen on the news every day for months, and I created my own person and the world in which he lived. It was the only human thing I could do.

Because not everybody could get in to see the show, Irene and I went into the community to do “pro bono” performances. We performed for a Covenant upstate, at Purchase University, at a City Hall dinner, at a church in Harlem, at Columbia University, at the CTG Conference in Milwaukee. Each performance was well-received, and afterward the audiences were eager to share their own feelings and stories about 9/11. But one of the most amazing experiences was when I brought my father and his Firemen friends to one of the early performances at the Flea will Bill and Sigourney. It was bizarre: inviting my father, estranged to the world I lived in, to experience a facet of his own world, which I had always been estranged to. Jim Simpson introduced himself to my father right there in the audience and said, “Mr. Cummings, your son is a phenomenal actor.” I felt a rush of blood to my face, and had to hang my head down. Who was I to feel proud in front of these men who gave their lives for their work? 

The play was such a success that they extended it to sold-out houses with revolving, A-List casts, and in the early spring, I got the chance to go on with Susan Sarandon. I was worried that I wouldn’t be accepted in the role. I mean, c’mon, there I was beside this amazing Academy-Award winning actress twice my age, before a packed house, all eyes — the audience’s and the company’s — on me. As it happened, after more than ten weeks into the run, that particular performance was the first time the audience gave an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Later, I performed the show for five consecutive nights with Swoosie Kurtz, who to this day remains one of my favorite people on earth. Swoosie introduced me to Aloe Vera juice, a soothing elixir for people who have stomach trouble, because that week, I developed an ulcer from juggling too much work. (A show that I was directing in the downstairs theater of The Flea was opening at the same time that I was filming a small scene in the movie version of “The Guys.”) She also introduced me to TONY-winning director Joe Mantello, who’d attended one of “The Guys” performances and later plucked me to Standby Stanley Tucci in the Broadway revival of “Frankie & Johnny” in the Clair de Lune” starring Edie Falco — my Broadway debut.

But the greatest part of being in “The Guys” was that I could channel my own talent as an actor and do what these firemen and policemen and Port Authority workers did — be of service. I know this, because audience members always made a point of taking me aside to say things like, “At first I didn’t think I could buy it you’re just too young to play this part.  But you nailed it, and I was moved.  I was THERE with you.” 

Not since being in The Guys have I remotely touched on how powerful theater can be. As it entertains you, causing you to laugh, to cry, to think, it has a restorative healing power, too. It’s true there are a million stories to be told about 9/11, and “The Guys” is only one of them…but it is the story that I know, and the story that I get to tell again this year at The Flea, for the 5-year commemorative re-mounting of Anne Nelson’s play. And going back to this work that made me a better person and a better actor is a rare opportunity. 

“The Guys” opens September 11 at the Flea for a limited run (212-226-2407; theflea.org). Tim’s performances will be on 9/13 and 9/16 at 3; 9/18 and 9/19 at 7; and 9/23 at 3.



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