Hell in Manhattan

Photo by Ray Mickshaw/Wireimage

IF MEMORIALS AND RITUALS ARE A BATTERED America's prescription for the horror of 9/11, then we have surely become an overmedicated nation. The intervening months have been filled with ceremonies both tiny and huge: flag raisings and flag foldings, symbolic empty stretchers, light shows, concerts, etc. It would be a mistake, however, to lump into the same bag every one of these gestures, from the single flower placed in front of a New York fire station to the Wagnerian architectural designs proposed for Ground Zero.

Journalist Anne Nelson's two-character play, The Guys, is definitely a single-flower attempt to honor the memory of New York's fallen firefighters and to make sense of the World Trade Center attacks. It began when Nelson helped the captain of a fire company to write eulogies for his station's eight missing men, an effort Nelson later adapted as a two-week stage event for Lower Manhattan's Flea Theater. It soon became something much bigger, both in emotional and production terms, and comes to the Actors' Gang Theater as a staged reading with two performers sitting in chairs with scripts at hand and which, for this final week, will feature Helen Hunt and Tim Robbins. (Susan Sarandon replaces Hunt next week, then Jeanne Tripplehorn and Philip Baker Hall take over through August.)

Hunt plays Nelson's alter ego, Joan, while Robbins is Nick, a portrayal based on the captain who is daunted by the idea of having to eulogize his lost men in church before their families and colleagues. The show could have easily become a three-hankie affair that played on easy sentimentality, the way old war movies always seemed to have a scene where a dead soldier's letter to or from home gets read aloud by his comrades just as the violins fade in. Director Robert Egan, however, makes sure Nick's recollections of his men and Joan's translations of them into elegies remain moments of quiet dignity.

Robbins is spellbinding as the captain, a man who appears to have literally borne the brunt of the twin towers' collapse and now moves forward in life like a melancholy statue, neither angry nor sorrowful, amazed that everything he hears about his profession is now put in terms of "hero this, hero that." And it is precisely because of this solemn taciturnity that Robbins can ignite the stage whenever Nick does turn his head slightly or allows his mouth to buckle with an ambiguous smile. By play's end, when Nick permits himself a terse, Brooklynese observation, or confesses to Joan his passion for dancing, Robbins transforms this character into a traumatized figure who nevertheless now knows more about his men and profession than he did at the play's start.

Robbins has already performed this part at the Flea in its off-book production and so here, while working from a script, does not refer to it. Hunt, who is relatively new to the show, relies more heavily on her script and does not betray much range past a deadpan earnestness; the Hunt eyebrows knit in concern early on and don't relax until 75 minutes later. Then again, hers is not an enviable part, since Nelson has her deliver a lot of the author's personal observations, which, frankly, often sound like stilted op-ed pieces, especially when Joan accuses the rest of the world of not being sympathetic to America.

In the end, The Guys is not, strictly speaking, a work of drama. It plays on an emotionally flat surface without mystery or tension, and because of that we don't complain that its eulogies deal with only half of Nick's men. But as a balm it is probably what the country needs. The Guys might not have much of a shelf life beyond these immediate times (even now it seems strangely old), but it was written for, and at, a moment when wounds were fresh, and not with an eye on posterity.

THE GUYS | By ANNE NELSON | At THE ACTORS' GANG THEATER, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Indefinitely

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