With the best possible intentions and talent to spare, local actors Alan Knoll and Laurie McConnell have produced a 10th anniversary mounting of The Guys which opened last night at Crestwood ArtSpace. Knoll is genuine and believable, conveying the simplicity of a FDNY fire captain who never expected to be in the position of losing his entire company and not only must he process that loss, but he must also provide eulogies for the families who want memorial services. The action is set only 12 days after 9/11, and “Nick” is still expressing the kind of quiet shock that Emily Dickinson wrote about so eloquently in “After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes.” He is numb and we can see that, but he also allows us glimpses of his usual demeanor when he talks about the guys.
As the writer who is helping him put together his remarks, McConnell as “Joan” has the more difficult part. She represents the population of New York that feels frustrated and hopeless and scared, and Nelson doesn’t give her much to work with. Her speeches tend to be either simplistic or pretentious. She has a rant in which her childish wish to turn back time is expressed, and that is understandable, but it is jarring in the middle of talking about “the guys” with Nick. She says she suggested to her Oklahoma dad on the phone that terrorists might be involved (no one was anywhere near that conclusion yet). She notes that telling her husband to go to his window on 31st street to watch the action she was seeing on television represented society’s “last postmodern moment.”
The two meet in Joan’s sister’s apartment where Joan has come to hold her sister’s baby, a “primal need,” and she agrees to meet with the fire captain who “needs” a writer. Joan has a moment of modesty when she talks about how being a writer doesn’t allow her to do anything to aid her city now, so she is eager to help Nick find the words to describe the friends and co-workers he has lost. She elicits memories from him of ordinary men, decent guys who made the world a better place through their individual personalities and in their final act, their dedication to duty.
Tom Martin has directed Knoll effectively—he seems still even when moving—but McConnell’s constant motion is distracting. Martin has her “strutting and fretting” which impairs the audience’s listening, or at least it did mine. It occurred to me that if any play had ever been just made for reader’s theatre, this one is it. When the focus is pulled away from the lives that were lost, the work itself shows its fragile bones. In 2001, it was a cri de coeur, raw and unvarnished and probably quite effective. In 2011, with the distance time provides, it seems amateurish.
All the technical aspects are fine, although light changes were jarring a couple of times. This is a well-intentioned and, if the opening night audience was any indication, well-received tribute to that terrible day that will define us in certain ways until all who remember it are dead ourselves. The eulogies themselves, as performed by Knoll, the last one in full dress uniform, are lovely and moving pieces, but these are interludes in an otherwise clumsy play.
On the positive side though, it is important to note that in times of great distress, people do turn to the arts for comfort and even clarification, something which those who hand out money for such things should consider more carefully. Overall, I think The Guys does deserve our support, if for no other reason than it reminds us of our shared humanity and the valor of common men and women in extraordinary circumstances. I appreciate the work Alan and Laurie have done and are doing to keep that in the forefront of our collective consciousness.
NOTE: If you go, you’ll want to bring cash to support The BackStoppers which has a boot for contributions in the lobby. For more information, you may visit www.backstoppers.org