NEW YORK—On a fall night on the Upper West Side, in a tiny theater on the fourth floor of a building whose elevator only went to the third floor, theater group The Collective premiered six short plays. Its members decorated the lobby with Christmas lights and sold red wine in plastic dixie cups.
One of the plays that debuted Wednesday was May First Twenty Eleven, which chronicled two New York brothers’ reactions to the death of Osama bin Laden. The play opens with the younger brother, Brian, sitting in his dorm room in a T-shirt and gym shorts, flipping through channels as news of the assassination plays (with actual cable news commentary from that night). He doesn’t show any emotion as he bypasses channel after channel. A knock on the door, and his older brother Alex loudly bursts in, with two beers in his hoodie pockets. He cracks them open and tries to convince his brother to come celebrate with him in Times Square. Brian doesn’t want to go.
We soon learn the boys’ father was killed in the 9/11 attacks. Brian was 10 years old. He talks about how he’s spent more of his life knowing his dad dead than knowing him alive. He talks about his revenge fantasies, playing video games where he would set up scenarios to kill bin Laden. He hates how 9/11 has become a defining feature of his life. But now with bin Laden dead, he has lost all enthusiasm for celebrating an event he had hoped for so long.
Alex, who has a frat boy air and is uncomfortable talking about their father, tries to tell Brian about his memories. He mentions that one thing was true about their dad: He was never late to work. He remembers thinking on 9/11 as he watched footage of the towers burning, that maybe, that one time, his dad was late to work. He lists all the people he could blame for his dad’s death—maybe if his mom hadn’t wanted such a nice house, his dad wouldn’t have had to work so hard. Then he says: The one person I could blame without question was him—pointing at the TV screen—and he’s dead. Alex found catharsis. His brother couldn’t. The death of bin Laden wasn’t enough recompense. Alex hugs Brian and leaves without him.
Craig McNulty, the playwright and a New Yorker, said afterwards that the play tracked his own reaction to bin Laden’s death. Initially he was elated and wanted to go party in Times Square. He stayed awake through the night. By early morning, the elation dissipated as he realized, “Nothing had really changed.” The city’s grief is still raw, still unresolved, and beginning to filter through its playwrights.