Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
With that question, there is no doubt that every audience member left for at least a few seconds the present reality of Pear Theatre's venue, landing back at the spot where first was heard, or seen, the events of that fateful morning. Joan tells us that she got a call in her Upper West Side, New York apartment from her Dad in Oklahoma, telling her to turn on the TV (because only people in places like Oklahoma actually watch television at 9 a.m. on a weekday, she informs us). She then called her husband's office on 31st Street, directing him and his fellow workers to look outside, where they then watched each of two World Trade Center twin towers collapse.
And with that description, it is suddenly fifteen years earlier, almost to the day; and many of us remember feeling what Joan calls her "crisis of marginality," the inability to do anything useful to help those who needed it most. But for Anne Nelson, the Joan of this story, she got a chance just a few days later in real life to actually do something that mattered when a friend ask her to take her journalistic background and help a New York Fire Department Chief write eulogies for the eight firefighters his company had just lost. The five hours she spent ghostwriting for him as he recalled a bit about each of the first four men at whose funerals he was to speak within a week turned into an Off-Broadway play. She wrote The Guys in just nine days, and it was then first performed not quite three months later on December 4, 2001, at The Flea Theater.
As we now approach the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, Pear Theatre revives The Guys, a play the New York Times once called "a heartfelt theatrical pas de deux" in which Joan meets Nick and leads him gently through remembering things that will "give their friends and family something they recognize."
What we soon learn is that, in Nick's mind, these eight guys were not the heroes being touted 24x7 on TV screens. For Nick, they were Bill, an ordinary guy "who looked like a plumber"; Jimmy, a new guy that "I can't even remember his face"; Patrick, "my best friend"; and Barney, whose "humor was as natural as breathing." Reluctantly at first and then with increased enthusiasm that brings both smiles and tears to his and Joan's faces, Nick recalls the littleand bigthings each of these men did and talked about in their everyday lives as firemen hanging around the station with their buddies. Patrick talked all the time about church picnics and kids. Bill was excited about a walking tour book of an obscure avenue in New York. Barry had invented a way one man could easily transport and store the heavy "jaws of life." Jimmy was going that morning to his first real fire.
Two people who should have never met build before us a visceral, genuine bond, a friendship fast and sure. Each is helping the other cope and be useful in a situation in which they, like millions, feel powerless. And we watch, eavesdroppers on their touching, intimate conversationsalmost too embarrassed to be prying as they share cold coffee and Kleenex.
Diane Tasca and Ray Renati, accomplished Pear veterans both, give moving performances in which their sharing, reactions, and emotions appear spontaneous, authentic, and non-scripted. That they are actors in a play at times is easy to forget. These are just two people in an unplanned conversationone searching for just the right questions and one struggling to recall at a time memories are almost too painful to have. In their faces and their body postures, the true script of the play is often most borne. A sudden smile at a remembered image, a cocked head in burdened reflection, slumping shoulders in increased despair, a snapped finger after a thankful recalland many more small, subtle, yet telling images tell the true story of Joan's and Nick's journey together that one afternoon.
Despite the excellent acting of these two and the sensitive direction of Christian Haines, my impression of The Guys is that it was a great, needed first response in the months and maybe even couple of years after 9/11 but that it does not add much to the conversation in 2016 that has not already been said time and again. Toward the end of the play, Joan asks no one in particular, "When to we go back to normal?" and then answers herself, "But normal will be different ... This is the new normal." Today, it has become painfully clear that the "normal" of 9/10/01 is ancient history. That we live in the "new normal" is now an everyday phrase.
The world of ongoing terrorism is all around us in towns and cities worldwidenow more often by lone individuals inspired by ISIS posts on the Internet rather than by Al-Qaeda trained groups. After Paris, Nice, Orlando, and dozens of other cities and towns worldwide, we have become much more sensitized that behind every number of victims is a host of individual tragedies, each affecting hundreds of others in their lives. Television, FaceBook, newspapers, and tweets have all ensured that we now see the faces, learn the stories, and share the collective grief. We can never get used to the initial shock of tragic events like 9/11, but we are unfortunately now much more familiar the stages of grief we will and must all and each go through for each new event.
While we can feel by watching The Guys the sadness of sudden, mindless loss and can even recall our own post-9/11 experiences, the play now feels more like a museum piece than a thought-provoking stimulus. What we need now is more people like Anne Nelson to write plays for this time of "the new normal."
The Guys continues through September 18, 2016, in repertory with Veils at Pear Theatre at 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View. Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.