“The Guys” will likely forever be the primary theatrical artifact of the immediate post-Sept. 11 moment. Written in a week by journalist Anne Nelson, the play is based on her experiences helping a fire captain craft eulogies for the eight men in his company who died at the World Trade Center. A simple and affecting expression of the event’s emotional impact on New Yorkers, the work opened in February at the downtown Manhattan Flea Theater, which, like many other theaters in the vicinity of Ground Zero, was on the verge of bankruptcy. With rotating casts of celebrity thesps, the piece has been running there ever since. It now arrives in L.A. under the auspices of the Actors’ Gang and for the first three weeks of an open-ended run boasts the A-list pairing of Tim Robbins and Helen Hunt.
There is an understandable resistance to creating art out of the devastation of the terrorist attacks. It’s important that nothing be prettified or calcified in easy sentiment. “The Guys” is purposeful in its artlessness, making up for the slightness of its craft with the authenticity of its emotion. Under the direction of Robert Egan, it’s performed in the form of a staged reading to allow for rotating casts.
Hunt plays Joan, a stand-in for author Nelson, who spent the early years of her career as an international journalist covering Latin America and now works as an editor and teacher. The play begins with Joan explaining the atmosphere that permeated the city in the hours and days following Sept. 11, and how she came to meet Nick, captain of Ladder Company 60, who, due to purely arbitrary scheduling, wasn’t on duty that morning.
They meet 10 days after the terrorist attacks. Nick still doesn’t know exactly what happened to his men, collectively referred to as “the guys.” They arrived on the scene just after the second plane hit and, presumably went running into one of the towers before it collapsed. The “rescue” effort is still under way, but families are beginning to come to terms with the fact that the unaccounted for will not be found alive and are scheduling memorial services. As the captain, Nick needs to speak at these services, but he’s a guy more comfortable with ladders and axes than words and emotions. He tells Joan about the individual characteristics and quirks of each of “the guys,” and she takes what he gives her and provides the written speeches. It is a play, in essence, about the difficulties of expressing loss.
Robbins portrays Nick with a heavy but highly convincing New York accent and an affectionate sense of the firefighter’s down-to-earth sensibility. This is a man still in shock, and still doing everything he can to retain a professional demeanor. Among the most striking moments is one in which Nick apologizes for burdening Joan with this task, even though it provides Joan with exactly what she needs — the ability to assist, however she can, those more directly affected by the attacks. She craves feeling useful. Nick is a man unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with asking for help, and in New York “The Guys” has reportedly provided therapeutic value to firefighters similarly unable to give voice to their trauma. This is still a moment when utility matters most, and the theatrical catharsis becomes a tool for recovery. Matters of art seem secondary. (As in New York, firefighters are offered a steep discount on tickets.)
There are times when Nelson injects an awkward literariness, as if it were necessary to provide not just a report but some form of intellectual digestion. At least in this production, these are the least affecting moments, as Hunt steps forward and speaks directly to the audience, narrating, in a sense, the “anger” and “bargaining” pieces of the grieving process. The emotion here feels just mildly contrived, as do some of the elongated pauses that serve as unneeded punctuation marks following the revelation of certain facts. Still, “The Guys” rings true most of the time.
Nelson mixes in some gentle, very human humor, without ever getting the slightest bit ironic or cynical: “Plumbers and carpenters first,” notes Joan about the sentiment at Ground Zero, “intellectuals to the back of the line.” There’s a tone to the play and to Egan’s spare direction that feels right — the distinction made between the sad and the maudlin, the moving and the depressing. At an hour and a quarter, the play has been gauged carefully so as not to try to do too much. It’s a memorial to the firefighters and not an epic, a play that prizes purity and clarity well above complexity.
“The Guys” captures with a certain elegance the sense of unity, the shared humanity, New Yorkers and others felt — the immediate, if temporary, disappearance of boundaries in response to the massive loss of life. In Los Angeles, “The Guys” can still speak to an audience, and do so effectively. But that’s not quite the same as speaking for an audience that needs a voice for its grief.