The Guys - play review (September 19, 2002)

This play was created literally as a result of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  Creator Anne Nelson, a former journalist, found herself in the position of helping a fire captain write eulogies for some men in his company, men lost on September 11, 2001.  Following a chance meeting with the founder of The Flea Theatre in New York, she wrote a play based on her experiences with the fire captain, and "The Guys" was born.  The play debuted at The Flea Theatre in December of 2001 and premiered in Los Angeles in July of 2002 with The Actors' Gang, a theatre company in Los Angeles.  The Actors' Gang's facility contains a 78-seat theatre, expandable by adding an additional row of 13 chairs in front.

The staging of the two-person play will remind some of the play "Love Letters".  The actors read from their scripts for the most part.  With slightly more set dressing than "Love Letters", the minimal set consists of an area rug, two chairs, two end tables (one of which contains a pen, a pad of paper, a book, a coffee pot and two mugs), and two music stands, which are sometimes used to hold the scripts.  And unlike "Love Letters", the text of the play alternates between dialogue and interaction between the two characters - Joan the journalist and Nick the fire captain - and Joan's monologues to the audience.


In the course of the play, which runs about 80 minutes straight, Joan gets Nick to tell her about his various men, and in his stories and descriptions, she is able to piece together the words that he will speak at their services.  Along the way, we learn about how a firehouse works and the dynamics of the relationships among the firemen.  We learn first-hand from Nick some of what it was like to be that close to the situation, and we empathize with Joan as she voices the helplessness and disbelief we all felt.  As she was describing her own reactions over the days and weeks following September 11, I found myself nodding in agreement, having had these same thoughts and discussions with friends.


I found the balance in the play to be perfect.  I went in not really knowing what to expect in my own reactions.  The play brings forth a mixture of feelings, from sorrow and anger at the events themselves and the lives lost, to happiness and even laughs, as we learn about the individual men, their interests, their lives, their personalities.  The play doesn't just dwell on the destruction of the day but also focuses on the men themselves.


As with "Love Letters", "The Guys" is designed to have a revolving cast.  It premiered in New York with Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray, and it premiered in Los Angeles with Helen Hunt (probably best known as Jamie Buchman in TV's "Mad About You") and Tim Robbins (the well-known actor and also the artistic director of The Actors' Gang).  I saw the play in the second week of its run with Helen Hunt and Tim Robbins.  I was seated in the first row, in chairs added to accommodate the sold-out house.


Both Hunt and Robbins were magnificent.  Given Hunt's previous roles, this character seemed a bit of a departure for her.  She played Joan with an edginess, a nervousness, always moving quickly and speaking quickly, frantic in her attempts to help Nick.  In contrast, Robbins' Nick was subdued, reserved, still shell-shocked from the events.  A man of few words in the best of times, he is at a complete loss in his present circumstances.


I saw the play again tonight, September 19, 2002, the second night of its run starring David Hyde Pierce (probably best known as Niles Crane in TV's "Frasier") and Glenne Headly (whose film credits include "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "Mr. Holland's Opus").  Like "Love Letters", the play changes slightly with each different cast, as each actor puts his or her own mark on the characters.  Headly's Joan was decidedly calmer, more methodical in her attempt to help Nick.  While I thought she did a fine job, she seemed much more comfortable in the segments she had memorized and therefore didn't need the script.  In some of the sections when she's still reading the words off the script, she seemed a bit more stilted.  But her performance isn't any less affecting.  And the same can be said for Pierce.  When I first heard that he would be performing the role, the choice struck me as being interesting.  With Robbins' stature, there's no questioning his believability as a fire captain, and because of his stature, his quiet, stoic portrayal of Nick worked well.  With Pierce, however, his slight stature would not project him automatically as being a fire captain.  But what Pierce might lack in stature, he certainly made up for in voice.  Pitching his voice probably two rungs lower than what he uses on "Frasier" (though not unnatural by any means) and speaking with authority and confidence and holding his body in the way one would expect from a fire captain, there is no question who Pierce becomes.  Pierce's Nick is much more emotional than Robbins'.  Pierce's is angry and confused and troubled, and he's not afraid to show it.  Pierce spends quite a bit of the play on the verge of angry tears.  His emotions are brimming, ready to spill at any moment, taking quite an effort on his part to reign them in.  I can't imagine how draining it must be for him to repeatedly sustain this performance, all while he is still filming another season of "Frasier".


The play is certainly very affecting.  The first night I saw the play, there were scattered sniffles amongst the audience.  Tonight, there were a few more.  Of course, everyone's reaction to the play will be different, but I would highly recommend attending a performance if possible.  Other productions of the play, not necessarily with celebrity casts, are scheduled to be launched in other cities.


The play is scheduled to run at The Actors' Gang indefinitely.  David Hyde Pierce and Glenn Headly are scheduled to perform for the next several weeks on designated dates.  Go to The Actors' Gang website for dates and ticket information.  There are also links there for more information on the play, reviews and articles.


The play has been published in book format and can be found in major bookstores.  The play has also been produced as a film, starring Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia.  Check local listings for details.  Also check the imdb page.




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