A colleague recently suggested that the “difficulty” with 9/11 art—that is, responses to the terror attacks in music, theater and so forth—is that the process of hearing someone else’s Sept. 11 experience serves chiefly to preoccupy us with our own. Put another way, it’s hard to absorb what someone else was doing that day because once the subject arises, we fixate on what we were doing.
Still, I’d been eager to see “Bikeman,” a new play about one man’s trials that morning, first because that man is a veteran journalist, and second because the play is staged at the BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center, in the proverbial shadow of the nearly complete One World Trade Center.
Based on a 2008 book by Emmy-winning producer Thomas F. Flynn, “Bikeman” recounts the newsman’s experience as he pedaled from his Greenwich Village apartment to the scene of the unfolding catastrophe, phoning in his intentions to the CBS news desk just before the start of his journey. A 21-speed hybrid Trek bicycle, similar to the one Flynn then owned—his actual bicycle survived 9/11, but was later stolen—rests on stage as the play begins.
“Bikeman” promises to chart the author’s experience of transiting from “journalist” to “participant.” The hook: Flynn’s piece was born as a narrative poem, inspired by a re-reading of Dante’s Inferno, and it’s in that vein that the entire 50-minute tale is recounted. We’re advised of this ahead of time by Flynn’s former coworker, correspondent Dan Rather, who introduces this “survivor’s lament” in a video broadcast on a wall of monitors, which later spin 180 degrees to reveal a series of metal catwalks, on which much of the action transpires.
As Flynn’s surrogate, Tony-nominee Robert Cuccioli (“Jekyll & Hyde”) guides us along, clad in a khaki reporter’s jacket. The action tracks Flynn’s motions: he arrived on the scene, saw the falling bodies, became trapped in a dust-choked garage, and finally returned home up the esplanade along the west side of Manhattan. Four other actors portray multiple roles: businesswoman, photographer, policeman, and so on.
With its lulls and urgent staccato bursts (“My baby’s there. My baby!” screams an anonymous woman. “Lady, lady, you can’t,” replies a policeman, subduing her), the dialogue isn’t likely a way you’ve heard 9/11 discussed. For me, the choice created an unwelcome distance, as if this were the theatrical retelling of a long-forgotten war. Nonetheless, Flynn has found words that ring true to strong feelings from that day. The sound of the first plane hitting the twin towers from a certain distance is “a pop, a softball into a catcher’s mitt.” The noise before the cascading of the second tower is preceded by “a small explosion, firecrackers at a Chinatown parade.”
I longed for more moments like the too-brief stretch of “Bikeman” where Flynn explores what he is feeling, not what he’s seeing. He’s trapped, along with a handful of survivors, in an apartment house garage on Liberty Street that becomes a “sarcophagus,” and where he is “pushed to rest in peace draped in a final coat of dust.” Among the survivors trapped with Flynn was an ambulance driver, whose ad hoc name for the producer gives the play its title.
For the most part, Flynn is repeating ideas to which we’re inured: the shoeless Wall Street workers marching away from downtown like zombies, the missing-person flyers taped outside St. Vincent’s and so forth. You’ll wish there were longer periods where we were exposed to the thoughtful man’s own inner despair. Flynn’s default position, it’s not surprising, is to chronicle what others were doing. Once a reporter …
“Bikeman: A 9/11 Play,” at the BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center, 199 Chambers St. On sale through March 30. Tickets: $39-$79, available by calling 212-220-1460 or online at bikeman911.com.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn