Dana Reeve, Roberta Maxwell,and Matte Osian in Portraits(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Dana Reeve, Roberta Maxwell,
and Matte Osian in Portraits
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Tragedy can beget art, and the painter in Jonathan Bell's new play Portraits well understands that an event like 9/11 conjures up a great need to make sense of the senseless. Whether or not the result is art is finally a matter of that mysterious combination of talent and technique. Bell takes on the challenge: At the beginning of Portraits, he audaciously tackles the creative process by presenting us with a painter (Christopher Coucill) who witnessed the destruction of the Twin Towers through his window. The artist tells us that he has the necessary skills to paint the horror, the grief, and the heroism of that day; what he lacks, he bitterly laments, is the concept that would propel his skill into art.

Picasso, our narrator tells us, painted his famous depiction of the massacre at Guernica and, within three months of that horrific occurrence, his creation was hanging in the Spanish Pavilion of the 1939 World's Fair. Our artist is frustrated almost to madness over his inability to do for the World Trade Center what Picasso did for Guernica, yet when he thinks about September 11th, he admits that he has no sense of personal loss. A neighbor who lived two floors below his apartment died that day, but the painter didn't know him. Sounding ashamed, he tells us that he feels like an outsider. With that thought, however, his eyes light up and he has his moment of inspiration: He'll paint the survivors, those who, like himself, live at the edge of tragedy's pit.

The painter has his concept; unfortunately, so does the writer of the play. What follows are a series of monologues in which a cross-section of familiar stories, clichés, and earnest homilies manage to touch our still raw nerves. It isn't hard to make a New York audience weep at a 9/11 story; the hard part is to tell such a story with subtlety, restraint, and a fresh perspective. Bell's conceit is to turn a painted portrait into a theatrical portrait. Andrew Knapp's set design takes no prisoners in that regard: Huge empty picture frames hang meaningfully from the rafters or, in one case, stand as an entranceway to the stage. Aaron Meadow's lighting design enhances the effect, and director Mark Pinter has the actors stand painfully still for long stretches of time during their monologues in order to stress the "painting" concept further.

Some of the cast members manage to infuse their stock characters with humanity. Matte Osian is a standout as a registered nurse from Boston who made his way to Ground Zero to help during the first several days of the crisis. He's effective despite having some of the most obvious lines in the play; that's how good an actor he is. Roberta Maxwell and Dana Reeve, who deliver the play's only two-part monologue, bring a stunning honesty and emotional directness to their roles.

Not all of the actors are so lucky. Darrie Lawrence gives a game performance as a sweet-hearted woman living outside the city who randomly calls a New York number on 9/11 just to let the person on the other end of the line know that someone cares, but the vignette has limited possibilities. Victor Slezak is saddled with a story that Neil LaBute told with far more complexity in his 9/11 play, The Mercy Seat. And Anjali Bhimani has the obligatory "I'm an American Muslim -- Don't Blame Me!" story that seems not so much ripped from newspaper headlines as neatly cut out and pasted into the play. Finally, Christopher Coucill as the artist is forced to deliver an ever-increasing amount of pretentious dialogue.

This 90-minute production at the Union Square Theatre joins a quickly growing list of 9/11 plays. The Guys is still the best of them despite its flaws, but the great 9/11 theater piece has yet to come. More will soon be upon us, such as Recent Tragic Events. If time heals all wounds, art is the salve that helps the healing. Let's hope that these plays will give us what we need.