Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
Also see Sharon's review of Exonerated
It is unusual for a play at a small theatre to break through to the general consciousness of Los Angeles, but The Guys, currently playing at The Actors's Gang, has accomplished this feat. Everyone knows about the September 11th play, the play about the fire captain who needs help writing eulogies for his lost men. That the play is performed as a semi-staged reading by well-known Hollywood performers in short stints enhances the show's reputation. But mostly, it is the first of what will no doubt be a lengthy parade of plays attempting to use theatre to help come to terms with the tragedy, and Los Angeles is curious.
There are, actually, two plays going on in The Guys. The first is the expected one - the tale of the fire captain, a good, hardworking man who, after having to bear the loss of eight men under his command, is now required to find words to give some level of comfort to the families of the fallen. By happenstance, he is offered the assistance of a writer who interviews him about the men and puts his rambling thoughts into poignant eulogies.
The creation process is most touching for its effect on the fire captain, being played through October 25 by David Hyde Pierce. As he is gently prodded by the writer to reveal facts about his men through idle chatter, he reminisces about them and casually throws out facts he thinks are of little significance - one lost firefighter had been with the NYFD for sixteen years, another for two weeks; one joked about the bad firehouse cooking, one prepared a Waldorf salad for a church picnic. But when the writer hands him a draft of the eulogies based on these facts, and he reads it aloud, he finally realizes what he is saying. He had worked side-by-side with that man for sixteen years. For the probationary employee, September 11 was his first big fire.
Pierce beautifully underplays the moments - a slight catch in his voice, a pause, a brief hint of softness is all he needs to show how deeply moved the captain is by a word or phrase that just barely hints at the bottomless grief he is not yet ready to claim as his own.
If you're looking for an opportunity to have a good cry over the tragic loss of lives on September 11, this is not, however, the play for you. During the show's brisk single act, we see the creation of eulogies for four men, yet we do not really learn much about them as multi-dimensional characters. They are, instead, the idealized heroes we've heard so much about. They were old and young, fathers and sons, serious and playful - but they were all excellent firefighters and all around good guys. Because we don't know them in any real way, their loss does not hit us any more powerfully than the loss of any of the other casualties whose names and photographs we've seen. The only individual to whom we can actually relate on an emotional level is the fire captain himself, and the script intentionally deprives us of the one scene in which he would really break down and cause us to do so as well - by having the writer, not the captain, read the draft eulogy of the captain's best friend.
The other play at work in The Guys is the story of the writer's attempt to develop an understanding of what happened on September 11. She is not trying to understand why the terrorists chose to attack civilians, or how they managed to pull off their attack. She is simply trying to wrap her brain around the scope of the loss and how she fits in the world which has been changed by the event. This plot is unsuccessful, although the cause of this may be attributable to Glenne Headly's performance. Headly isn't nearly as comfortable working from book as Pierce. She holds the script in her hand rather than using the music stand provided, and thereby loses the opportunity to use her hands for emphasis or character. She reads many of her lines awkwardly, with many "uh"s, stutters, and pauses. This could be, in part, character-driven. The writer is clearly dazed by the events and not fully present in the moment. Yet Headly makes even simple phrases intended to encourage the captain's storytelling sound unnatural, and her most convincing scene occurs the one time she sets the script down for a memorized monologue - suggesting this is simply a case of an actress uncomfortable with her script.
When viewed as a play solely about the fire captain, with the writer's presence seen only as a tool to generate his responses, The Guys succeeds as a reminder that, as we go on with our lives more than a year after September 11, the emotional wounds will take longer to heal. When viewed solely as an opportunity to watch Pierce masterfully inhabit a character so different from his "type," it is an interesting study in the art of acting. But as a cohesive piece of theatre, it is not particularly memorable.
The Actors' Gang presents The Guys; Written by Anne Nelson; Directed by Robert Egan. Lighting Designer Ben Courtney; Scenic Designer P. Adam Walsh; Stage Manager Sherri Nierman; Publicity Rebecca Gilchrist.
The Guys will star David Hyde Pierce and Glenne Headly through October 25, 2002 and continue indefinitely with other casts. For performance schedule and tickets, see www.theactorsgang.com