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Theater Review: The Guys

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, Columbia University journalism professor Anne Nelson found two unusual ways to help her city process its grief. She helped a fire captain who had lost most of his men craft the eulogies he found himself unable to write. And then she penned a play based on what she had done, as a commission for a downtown theater nearly put out of business by its proximity to Ground Zero.

When The Guys opened at Manhattan's Flea Theater in December 2001, it was a surprising success. According to Nelson, "A play couldn't cure anyone. But it could bring people together in a dedicated space and allow them to experience emotion together."

Four years later, the need for communal catharsis has diminished. But as perspectives on 9/11 become politicized, The Guys serves as a searing reminder of the raw pain experienced by those who lost loved ones to sudden and horrifying deaths. The Catalyst Theatre production is sensitively staged by director Veronica Lopez and well executed by her two-person cast. But the performance suffers from the Waterfront Theatre's troubling acoustical deficiencies.

The essence of the play is not about mourning, but about remembering. The action takes place over the course of an afternoon, in the living room of a modest New York City apartment. Stricken fire captain Nick, who has lost eight men, has come to get assistance from writer Joan, a friend of a friend. He is reluctant to drag her into his grief -- after all, she hasn't lost anyone. But she is eager to do something to overcome her "crisis of marginality," her sense of powerlessness in the face of her city's tragedy.

Nick is angered by what people who didn't know his men are saying about them: "I keep hearing all these speeches from the politicians on TV. The pictures in the paper. Hero this, hero that. I don't even recognize them." By gently prodding him to recall everyday firehouse stories, Joan helps Nick remember his fallen comrades as people -- funny, flawed, full of life -- rather than "plaster saints" or cardboard heroes.

Nick talks, Joan writes, and together they develop affectionate and memorable portraits for the first four eulogies, which Nick practices on stage. Bill was the firehouse food critic. Jimmy was the eager "probie," going to his first real fire on that fateful Tuesday morning. Patrick made Waldorf salad to take to church picnics. Barney, a gifted metalworker, "fixed something before we even defined the problem."

As Joan draws Nick out, she is drawn in emotionally to the lives of men she never knew. During the play, her character steps to the side of the stage to ruminate via monologues. Her final speech is interwoven with Nick's last eulogy, which he gives in full dress uniform. She is plaintive, demanding: "I want them back, just the way they were. I want them all back, together again."

The performances of Dennis McSorley, as Nick, and Sheila Collins, as Joan, were well matched. Both actors deftly built the emotional arcs of their characters through gradual accumulation of detail over the course of the play.

McSorley was entirely believable as the New York City fire captain numbed by his staggering loss. The eight deaths leave Nick tormented, and McSorley effectively captured how Nick feels caught in a surreal limbo. He is preparing to eulogize friends he doesn't really comprehend are dead, to speak at funerals where there will be photographs in place of bodies.

As Joan gets Nick to open up, McSorley revealed flashes of the humor and passion that animated Nick before he was gripped with grief. McSorley delivered the eulogies with quiet strength, while showing Nick's slight undercurrent of hesitance and nerves. The effect was so poignant that it was hard to remember this was a play, rather than an actual memorial service.

Joan is a trickier role. She has to handle Nick gently, coaxing, cajoling, counseling and comforting him. In a performance that was initially understated but eventually quite moving, Collins subtly portrayed how Joan responds to the unpredictable contours of Nick's emotional seismograph. Joan's initial impulse to help Nick comes from a detached place, the abstract need to do good. By the time Joan reads the draft of Patrick's eulogy aloud to Nick, Collins showed how the detachment has dissolved, and the abstract has become powerfully real.

The play's text unfortunately saddles Collins with some weak monologues, such as the overly expository opening speech recounting Joan's backstory and the didactic scientific treatise on stress hormones and trauma. Here Nelson shows herself as a journalist and not a playwright. Collins struggled to give life to these stilted passages, but she delivered the anecdote-filled soliloquies with greater success.

Director Lopez deserves credit for a wealth of thoughtful detail that enhanced the storytelling. She gave music an important role in establishing mood. As the audience was settling in before the show, a recording of a dissonant and somewhat nerve-jangling Charles Ives piece, "Central Park in the Dark," played in the background.

Once the lights dimmed, another Ives composition played for a few minutes before the lights came up and the action began. The haunting, swelling lines of "The Unanswered Question" drew the audience into the play's reflective spirit. Lopez used the same piece towards end of the play to great effect. The orchestral interlude before Nick delivers the final eulogy provided a break from the cascade of words, a place for audience members to gather their thoughts.

Another impressive production element was the large rectangular weaving that rose behind the stage. Set designer Robert W. Wolff recreated a living room appropriate for a working writer -- not too spacious or stylish -- with a variety of places for the characters to interact. The beige tapestry served as a neutral backdrop during most of the action. But while "The Unanswered Question" played, two spotlights shone ghostly trails up its face to echo the missing towers.

Casey Covey's lighting of the main action, which takes place in the late afternoon, had a distractingly wan tone. But the other effects he created worked well. Overhead pools of light focused intently on McSorley and Collins during their final speeches. McSorley's spot dimmed as he finished the eulogy, casting his facial features into shadow and leaving just the iconic image of the fire captain's uniform. Nick is no longer an individual, but a stoic symbol of those left behind.

Even with all of these strengths, The Guys did suffer from the Waterfront Theatre's acoustics, which fall somewhere on the spectrum between disappointing and disastrous. While the recorded music sounded fine, the actors' voices often sounded hollow, as if both the volume and vibrancy were being sucked into the rafters. In addition, street noise from outside occasionally penetrated the theater during the performance.

Both Collins and McSorley seemed to enunciate and project well; the fault lay clearly with the architecture and not the actors. But the flawed acoustics damaged their performances. Lost words deprived dialogue of its significance, or robbed a joke of its punchline. When McSorley had to thunder to reflect his character's agitation, every word was audible. But it will be an artistic calamity if actors have to shout their way through every role just to make their voices heard on this stage.

Despite the serious problem with the venue, The Guys is worth seeing. Its relevance transcends the historical setting. Connecting and remembering and trying to find a way to go on in the face of incomprehensible cruelty -- unfortunately, this theme will always be timely.

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