The lingua franca of urban disasters—where were you when it happened, did you know anyone there, how did you cope with it—has already been shaped into a dozen works dealing with 9-11 and will surely give rise to hundreds more. Most of them, like Jonathan Bell’s Portraits, will follow predictable paths, scattering their predictable characters to cover the story’s basic areas. There’s no harm in such works, if they stay reasonably within the realm of fact; in the aggregate, they’ll serve to give future generations some sense of how we responded.
Bell frames the monologues of Portraits in the narration of a Soho painter struggling to create 9-11’s Guernica. Revealingly, when the cast huddles behind an empty picture frame in the final tableau, director Mark Pinter leaves the painter outside. That’s roughly where Bell’s writing stands too; his speakers mostly convey lecture truisms or news clips, not human conversation. His actors, especially Roberta Maxwell and Victor Slezak, add what life they can. But the well-intentioned writing smooths away every vital part of the tragedy, from oil politics to the burning hell the rescue teams faced.