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Spectacular new multi-media production brings down the house.

By Marcel Girodian
Theatre Critic
September 18, 2001

Excuse me, but am I the only one who feels that our modern theatricals have become too simple-minded?

Wasn't there a time when people like Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams wove layers of complex meaning and subtlety into their plays? When dramatists like Shakespeare and Moliere and even Ionesco made an attempt to engage the intellect a bit while entertaining us?

Thoughts like these raced through my benumbed brain as I witnessed "9-11," the absurd new melodrama that was staged last week at the World Trade Theatre off Broadway.

One must ask: how gullible do they think modern audiences are? Suffice it to say that "9-11" proved too infantile a parable for this jaded reviewer.

You can start with its name -- "9-11." The producers obviously chose the opening night of September 11 to program a "meme" into people's brains so that they would associate the name of the play with the 911 phone number that people in the US dial for emergencies. "911! Emergency! 911! National emergency! We need unlimited powers to make war! 911! You must surrender your freedoms so that we can protect you!" Otherwise, why wouldn't they have named the play something with more box office appeal, like, "Attack of the Towering Infernos" or something? No, obviously "psy-op" people had a hand in naming the production and selecting the opening date.

It's also the first production I've seen where the producers and director (perhaps wisely) remain unnamed. Oh, the playbill credits an O. Bin-Laden, but it is highly doubtful that a theatrical neophyte could have mounted such a polished if dumb production, especially since he lives in a cave 5000 miles away and has never even set foot in the theatre.

The actor playing the US president was pretty wooden, but in his defense, the scenario the writers provided for him was so implausible that I doubt Lord Olivier himself could have brought much credibility to the role.

For the main problem is that the play is simply not believable. There are so many holes in the plot, it could be used to strain cottage cheese.

Imagine, dear reader. You're the president of the United States. Your chief of staff comes in and tells you that "America is under attack." And what do you do? You just sit there, for at least seven to nine more minutes, and listen to children read a story about a goat! Then afterwards, you linger in the school, make small talk with the teachers, pose for photographs, for many more minutes. I ask you, is this credible?

Student dramatists -- do not study this play, unless you want to learn really bad dramaturgy. Even a hack writer realizes that such a situation calls for the president to jump up and say "What??? The country's under attack????!!! Get Rumsfeld and Powell on the horn immediately!!!" He would rush from the room to take charge of the situation, as commander in chief.

That the president didn't do this is inconceivable, and damages the play's credibility. What possible explanation can there be for such behavior except that the news of the attack was not a surprise to Bush, but rather something he was expecting? And that "doing nothing" was simply a way to kill time and ensure that the hijackers could conclude their mayhem unmolested by pesky authorities.

Give the Scenic Design people credit, though. Setting the "President learns of the Attack" scene in a classroom full of poor black children, with a black teacher, was a skillful way to demonstrate "Good vs. Evil," as seems to have been the director's intention. "Good Bush is helping black children while the evil Arabs are killing everybody!" is the response obviously desired of the audience, and it seems to have been effectively elicited from the gullible hordes, even if this reviewer was unimpressed. The director could have achieved this aim, and still maintained the entertainment's credibility, if he had simply shortened the scene, so that Bush could have feigned a more natural reaction to the cataclysmic "attack on America" and raced to take charge.

Finally, there is the villain of the piece: Osama Bin Laden. Not since Snidely Whiplash have we seen so extravagantly evil a character. Credit the CIA makeup artists where credit is due -- Osama's long beard served as a compelling token of sinisterness, like Snidely's (or Boris Badenov's) mustache did in those swell old Jay Ward cartoons. The robe, the turban...all cliched if effective symbols of evil. It baffles me a bit that the authors didn't think to have Osama tie sweet, defenseless ladies to railroad tracks as well, to demonstrate unmistakably that he is the personification of Absolute Evil in stark contrast to the Good, clean shaven, born-again Christian (Dudley Do-right) Bush.

Let's be grateful for small favors. At least the writer and director did not have a "Pope" character chase Osama with a crucifix and try to project its shadow onto him, whereupon Osama would presumably have burst into flames. Or have Dorothy Gale toss water on him to make him melt.

A capable production crew did its best to save the entertainment. Props, notably the steel beams from the fallen towers, were expertly handled by Rudolph Giuliani, who arranged to have them shipped to China and India for salvage before engineers had a chance to examine them for tell-tale signs that explosives had been detonated in the fallen buildings. This action angered the engineers, who protested vigorously, but it was not their show. (Those collapses were obviously demolitions caused by pre-planted explosives. All kudos to the Special Effects team for bringing this off so well).

There was some spirited choreography -- a group of Israeli men with Mossad connections danced up a storm, apparently celebrating the destruction, while filming the burning buildings from across the river. They even gave each other high-fives!

But, alas, production values alone cannot save "9-11." The play's many glaring inconsistencies and absurdities include: Why were routine NORAD procedures calling for fighter jets to immediately approach and make contact with hijacked airliners not followed? Who were those mysterious traders who placed an extraordinarily high number of "puts" on American and United Airlines stock in the days before the attack (betting that the stocks would go down)? Why did the White House ignore repeated warnings, from the spy agencies of more than a dozen countries, that the attacks were coming?

How could jet fuel have caused the collapses when it burns at a temperature well below steel's melting point and was totally consumed within minutes? How could a plane as big as a 757 have entered Pentagon airspace more than an hour and a half after the government knew what was happening, and no action was taken to intercept it? How could student pilots trained on puddle jumpers have taken jumbo jets through complex maneuvers that would have been difficult for an expert pilot, and then crashed into the Pentagon, leaving a hole far too small to have been made by a Boeing 757, and failing to leave even a trace of the plane among the debris?

How was the FBI able to identify all of the alleged perpetrators within days of the event -- even though they had supposedly used false identities and their bodies were lost in the wreckage -- if FBI chiefs hadn't a clue that it was going to happen in the first place? (Much like the way Mr. Lee H. Oswald was similarly suspiciously fingered within hours of his alleged event in the 1963 play "Dallas.") How could passengers have made cellphone calls from the hijacked jets when cellphones cannot operate at airplane cruising altitudes? If Flight 93 had really crashed, intact, in Pennsylvania, why was its wreckage spread over an 8 mile area, which could only have happened if it had been shot down or exploded in midair?

Why did WTC 7, a third steel-framed skyscraper that was not hit in the attack, and suffered little damage from debris, nevertheless collapse anyway (perhaps it was the control center for the production, and contained evidence that had to be destroyed? Or was it just a coincidence that the CIA and Pentagon had offices there?)

Why did US officials tell Pakistani diplomat Niaz Naik, two months before "9-11," that the US was planning to attack Afghanistan in the fall? Why did US Attorney General Ashcroft stop taking commercial flights and switch to private jets, months before the 9-11 premiere, due to what the FBI called a "threat assessment?" Why did Bush say he learned of the first plane hitting the tower when he saw it happen on TV, when no film of it was broadcast until the following day? Who warned ex-San Francisco mayor Willie Brown not to fly on September 11?

So many loose ends in this plot! Leaving one with no conclusion but that high US officials with a surfeit of power but only a "community theatre" level of skill had a major hand in the playwriting.

So although "9-11" works as a propaganda play, useful as a pretext to make the ignorant, impressionable masses support a pre-planned military and globalization agenda, it falls on its face as sophisticated drama.

While we do expect the producers to revive the piece from time to time, in different theatres and with slightly altered scenarios, we don't think "9-11" will make it into the repertories of serious theatrical companies.

2005 by Marcel Girodian

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