For 9/11 play The Guys, too much time has passed

Anne Nelson, a journalism professor, wrote The Guys very soon after 9/11, and the play closely follows her own experiences. Like her protagonist, Joan, Nelson could think of no real way to contribute — plumbers were needed, Joan tells us, but not intellectuals — until she learned of a fire captain who had lost eight men in the attack and needed help composing eulogies. She spent five hours taking down his thoughts and transforming them into writerly prose. After a discussion with Jim Simpson of the Flea Theatre, she turned the interaction into a play, which was performed for a shell-shocked city by Bill Murray and Simpson's wife, Sigourney Weaver. At the time, it must have been a healing endeavor.

But this flat and obvious script feels downright obtuse — not to mention overwrought — in light of all that's happened in the intervening years. The format consists of scenes from the interview, punctuated by Joan's monologues, and is necessarily static, but that wouldn't matter if the play brought the fallen firefighters to life and communicated a real sense of loss. The fire captain, Nick, isn't particularly eloquent, and his comments are those you tend always to hear after a tragedy: "He was a regular guy"; "He was proud of being Irish"; "He loved New York." At least that's realistic; Nick himself is a regular guy. But then Joan translates his observations into the smooth, meaningless language of the average newspaper obit. For a while it seems like this might be okay, too, because some kind of truth about these guys and the meaning of their deaths will surely be revealed in the interactions between Nick and Joan, his responses to her efforts, their growing mutual understanding.

It doesn't happen. The anecdotes remain ordinary, and the information we get about the culture of fire-fighting is mundane: There are kitchens in fire stations and the men cook; the coffee's bad; the implement we know as the jaws of life is called a Hurst tool. There are so many questions swirling around, and none of them gets addressed or answered even obliquely. What kind of man or woman can rush into a furnace so hot that it singes hair and skin? What language do members of the fire-fighting community use among themselves, and how do they let off steam? I once had a student who'd worked with firefighters as a teenager, and her stories about their talk and escapades were vivid. At one point they coaxed this very young girl into posing on a sofa with a seated, fly-covered corpse — the first dead person she'd ever seen — and took photographs. An event like this is obviously anomalous, but I can't believe New York firefighters are as boringly undifferentiated as the people Nick describes. Did he secretly doubt or dislike any of his men? Think one of them a coward, another a risk-taking cowboy? Thank heaven that Joan and Nick get through only four of the eight possible eulogies in the course of their session, because for a short play, The Guys feels inordinately long.

Only Joan's monologues express any real feeling, and unfortunately, that feeling is self-pity — as if the entire story were primarily about her. This is a shame, because the opening monologue does reveal a wry and thoughtful authorial mind. (Nelson cut her journalistic teeth in Latin America in the early 1980s, and works in the field of human rights today; you can't help thinking that if she rewrote this piece now, she'd bring more perspective to the task.) And also because Rita Broderick's performance in the role is luminous and — at least until the quavering final moments — beautifully restrained. Michael Ingram is dignified and likable as Nick, but he's not working between the lines, and he doesn't communicate the depths of the fire captain's pain and loss.

"Will we go back to normal?" Joan asks at the end. "Normal will be different. This is the new normal." You can't help reflecting on what you know of the new normal: families and their attorneys squabbling over compensation, the monstrously expensive plans for the site, along with all the jockeying for control and commissions; the racist national controversy about plans for a nearby mosque. Not to mention the devastated cities and villages overseas and the scores of people slaughtered by the effects of our national rage, grief and sense of victimhood.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman