The lights come up and Joan (Laurie McConnell) begins talking about the wonders of New York; a lot of what she says is exposition, and most of it is dim burble lost in the aftermath of the still-shocking opening images. In the intervening years, 9/11 has been fetishized and wielded like the ultimate fundraiser by politicians, and like the most potent argument-ender by broadcasters, to the point that you can tune out the words and the memories when someone invokes that day. But when you see the images in the dark, surrounded by strangers, all the terror and confusion and pain comes back.
Journalist-turned-playwright Anne Nelson wrote The Guys when those images were still raw — the play was first performed in December of 2001 — and Joan, her stand-in, represents the powerlessness we all felt. When we meet her, Joan is drifting through the wreckage of 9/11, still trying to make sense of what happened and what she's supposed to do. Then she hears about Nick (Alan Knoll), a fire captain who must eulogize eight members of his company and is unable to find the words. The journalist offers her help, interviewing Nick about his men — his "guys" — and turning the interviews into carefully wrought, personalized tributes.
As directed by Tom Martin, Knoll's Nick is a carefully self-contained man. Unable to give in to his grief — he still has a job to do, and he's going to do it — Nick is guarded with his feelings and keeps Joan at a safe distance. It's when he talks about his guys and the job that the real Nick emerges. He loves what he does, and he loved his company, and the knowledge that they're all dead somewhere under all that rubble is something he accepts intellectually long before he can understand it emotionally.
McConnell is at her best in these interviews, as she draws Nick out of his shell with careful questions. Nelson isn't content to let us watch these two people find comfort in the healing qualities of companionship, however. Instead she resorts to theatrical artifice, making Joan step out of the story every now and then to address the audience, spouting clumsy metaphors about our circles of relationships being like the rings made when pebbles are dropped in water and relating conversations with baristas about who they lost and how they're coping. It's telling that someone in the service industry who lost two loved ones in the Towers is back at work while Joan, who lost no one, wallows in impotent grief for a week or two before re-adhering nose to grindstone.
The play would end with Nick in his dress blues delivering the eighth eulogy, were it not for the fact that Joan seizes upon this moment to interrupt him every few seconds with her own frustrations about how and why this happened, and how unfair it all is. McConnell conveys all the familiar, impotent anger that people like Glenn Beck continue to strip-mine to this day, while Knoll's dignified and heartfelt remembrance is chopped to bits.
It's strangely off-putting that a play written with the intent of honoring the first responders who gave their lives for their fellow citizens runs roughshod over their memorial. Especially since nothing Joan says is more interesting or compelling than those moments when two strangers sat around a living room talking about the human beings who went to their deaths with a belief that no sacrifice was too great if it was made in the service of others.
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