Pedaling Into Ground Zero: Reporter Thomas F. Flynn’s 9/11 Memoir Is Now a Play

'Bikeman' is a bike ride into a contemporary hell, with shades of a classic Greek odyssey

Robert Cuccioli as Thomas F. Flynn in 'Bikeman: A 9/11 Play.' (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Robert Cuccioli as Thomas F. Flynn in ‘Bikeman: A 9/11 Play.’ (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

We all remember where we were on that surreally sunny September morning. Thomas F. Flynn, a producer-writer for CBS’s Dan Rather Reports, was having his coffee and reading the paper on his garden deck in Greenwich Village before heading off to work, when a low-flying plane swooped over him. He knew instantly. “We’re under attack,” he told his wife, Nancy.

“It was not a plane trying to save itself,” Mr. Flynn recalled in a recent interview. “You know the difference. A plane flying that low trying to save itself is screeching, trying to pull up, trying something. This one was doing exactly what it wanted to do.”

When American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the northern façade of the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:40 a.m., it reached Mr. Flynn’s ears on 10th Street as a little pop—but a call to arms, nonetheless. Built into every true newsperson is the basic instinct to rush toward the disaster. He called the news desk at work and told them he was going to the towers, and they said, “Go.”

Hopping on his trusty Trek bike, he pedaled his way into a contemporary Dante’s Inferno. The two hours he spent there prompted his 2008 book, Bikeman, an epic narrative poem covering his journey into, and back from, the indelible horrors of that day.

Now, he has turned that 76-page book into a 50-minute play, which will world-premiere Feb. 18, directed by Michael Bush and starring Robert Cuccioli as Mr. Flynn, at the BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center, three blocks from the site of the tragedy it depicts.

There are four other actors in the play, each of whom plays two characters, but essentially it’s Mr. Cuccioli’s show. “I figure that there are about 7,000 words in the script, and Bob must have 6,995 of them,” Mr. Flynn quipped, not exaggerating a bit.

No doubt it must feel that way to the actor who must memorize the material. “In the short amount of time that we’ve had to work on this—two weeks in the rehearsal room and one week of tech—it was a real challenge in memorization,” confessed Mr. Cuccioli. “Tom writes in a very free poetry style, and there really isn’t any rhyme per se. Plus, he’s such a good writer that he never repeats himself. (He almost repeats himself, just enough to screw me up.) I’ve had roles with more words—Salieri in Amadeus is onstage for three hours and doesn’t shut up—but few have been as emotionally draining. Thank God it’s only an hour long.”

In performances, he frequently finds himself welling up. “There’s a moment in the play that broke Tom, and that’s always the moment that gets me, too. I have to fight that.”

Having Mr. Flynn around to draw from, and confer with, has been a godsend for Mr. Cuccioli. “His words told me most of it,” the actor said. “But there were some things I went to him about—‘What happened here?’—just so I know what he was going through, what the situation was. I’m blessed to have him by my side. He has been amazingly supportive.

“A few weeks ago, we got to go through the memorial, and Tom took me down the river path he took to get home that day, so I got a little tour of where he was, where these events happened, where the garage was, things like that. It was invaluable.”

There is an apartment-house garage on Liberty Street where Mr. Flynn, Trek in tow, took shelter with a cluster of strangers just as the South Tower came down. A straggler in their party was not so lucky, disappearing forever in a rain of concrete and dust.

“The carcass of the tower rolled up the hill and tore the whole side of the apartment building off—it was one of those glass-type exteriors—but it didn’t knock the building down,” Mr. Flynn said. It was then that a sickening feeling came over him that his tomb had just been sealed and he would be found dead in that dusty darkness. Fortunately, there was an ambulance driver among them, experienced in emergency matters, who guided the group to safety. “As far as I know, his name was Avi—at least that’s the way I heard it on the walkie-talkie—and to him, I was just Bikeman.”

Mr. Flynn has returned to that parking garage only once since—a real tour of duty to promote his book’s release. “A reporter wanted to do the whole trip with me, so I did it, but I won’t do it again,” he sad. “Boy, did I get the willies! I was trapped there, and I’m not going to get trapped again—that’s the feeling I have. There are a few leftover fears I have. I won’t look up at the top of a building now. It just rattles my knees.”

To approximate on stage such an epic horror show requires ingenuity, integrity and taste. “You can’t be realistic about this—it’s just too overwhelming,” Mr. Cuccioli observed. “This is a very artistic kind of approach. The images aren’t true to life or anywhere near that. It gives a representation but still with an artistic attitude.”

Director Bush’s vision of the World Trade Center’s final moments was steeped in stairs and multilevels. Scenic designer James Noone translated this into three plexiglass wagons that work together as the tower unit or break into three separate units and can have a solid or smoky appearance depending on how lighting designer Kevin Adams lights them. “Jim gave me the three platforms, but how to use them was up to me,” Mr. Bush clarified. “He even came to me and said, ‘My hat’s off to you for what you’ve done with them.’ I also like the psychological kind of Rubik’s Cube that sorta opens up and transforms itself.”

Bikeman looks perfectly placed in its handsomely upholstered amphitheater in Tribeca. “I wanted a theater where you look down on the play, because I saw it as Greek,” said Mr. Bush. “I directed it as if it were Antigone. My first instinct on reading it was it’s an odyssey just like the classic Greek odyssey. I’ve always thought the Greeks had it right and we screwed it up.”

Before regular critics get a crack at it, Bikeman was seen by the real critics, the 9/11 Museum and Memorial, and it’s the first outside 9/11-inspired artistic endeavor to be embraced and endorsed by the organization.  Alice Greenwald, director of the 9/11 Memorial Museum, thought the play “brings compassion, humanity and understanding to the memory of 9/11.” When people buy a ticket to the memorial site, Mr. Flynn said, they’ll be shown a link to a website where they can purchase a ticket to the play as part of the memorial’s mission.

The first image the audience sees as they file into the auditorium is the Trek, a 21-speed, 20-inch-frame hybrid bike closely resembling the one that carried Mr. Flynn into hell. “The original Trek I leaned up against the Korean deli one day just to run in for a cup of coffee, and—typical New York story—when I came back, it was gone,” he said.

Somewhere in the city, someone is riding around, totally oblivious to the fact he or she is sitting on the seat of history. “As a symbol, as an icon, as something important in my life, yes,” Mr. Flynn said. “But as a bicycle, it was shot. It had seen too much history.”