Reviewed by George Basler
For those of us old enough to remember, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 will never be forgotten. But it’s been 20 years — two decades — since that cataclysmic day. An entire generation has grown up since then. For them, it’s a historical event, not a personal experience.
So, a play such as Anne Nelson’s The Guys is an important and necessary reminder of that day and the sacrifices of ordinary people. Even with the passage of time, the work retains its visceral power.
Written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the play is about a fire captain, Nick, and an editor, Joan, working together to write eulogies for firefighters lost in the World Trade Center.
A production opened this past weekend (Sept. 10-12) at the KNOW Theatre in downtown Binghamton and will run weekends through Sept. 26. It features Jennifer Corby, who has worked more than 20 years in theater, film and television, and KNOW artistic director Tim Gleason.
Both Gleason and Corby have played the roles before, notably in a 2011 production at the KNOW Theatre. But there’s no indication that they’re rehashing their roles. Their performances, under the direction of Mike Arcesi, are crisp, fresh and deeply moving. The play, despite flaws, is the same.
The Guys has an intriguing background. Nelson was not a professional playwright, but an award-winning journalist turned journalism professor. In the aftermath of 9/11, she helped a fire captain prepare to speak publicly at the funerals of men who died on that day. Jim Simpson, the artistic director of the Flea Theater in lower Manhattan, asked her to turn her experiences into a play, which Nelson did in time for it to be performed three months after the event.
The Guys shows signs of being written in haste by a novice. There is no real story arc, just a series of interviews interspersed with monologues from Joan. While this can be gripping, it drags a bit at times as Nelson repeats herself, and the eulogies lose their impact.
But the fact that The Guys is a deeply personal work overcomes whatever shortcomings it has.
For such a somber topic, the play also has real moments of humor — mostly supplied by Joan’s gentle jibes about life in New York City — and even sweetness as when Nick explains his love of ballroom dancing, especially the tango.
Nelson’s accomplishment is showing Nick and his deceased colleagues as real people, not superheroes. One was a probationary firefighter responding to his first big fire; another was a veteran whose life revolved around work, family and church. There was the jokester and do-it-yourself enthusiast who created tools still being used in the firehouse after his death, and there was the guy who lived with his parents and couldn’t seem to find a date.
None considered themselves heroes. They were ordinary men who thought they were just doing their job on that horrible day. Their ordinariness made their actions even more honorable. Nelson deserves enormous credit for reminding us of this.
Throughout the 90-minute play, Joan is working to come to terms with her own feelings of helplessness as she contemplates how 9/11 has impacted her beloved New York City. Corby, for the most part, gives an effectively restrained performance that never overstates the character’s inner anguish.
The one exception is a monologue near the end of the play when Joan expresses her angry belief that some people are misinterpreting the events of 9/11. As written, and performed, it is too overwrought. But Corby makes up for this flaw with a beautifully played final monologue in which she asks, “Will we go back to normal?” before adding “Normal is different. This is the new normal.”
Gleason perfectly plays Nick’s mixture of emotions: stoicism, survivor’s guilt, unresolved pain. With a subtle change in his voice and facial expressions, Gleason moves from joyfully remembering a colleague’s quirks to revealing the depth of his grief. The conflicting emotions are the heart of the play, and Gleason makes them very real.
Of course, 20 years have passed since the events in The Guys, and that can’t help but color audiences’ reactions to the play.
It’s a dispiriting exercise in many ways. As New York Times columnist Bret Stephens noted in a recent article: “In so many ways, 9/11 brought out the best in New York. …Twenty years later, though, 9/11 seems different to me. Less like an unimaginable tragedy and more like a harbinger of a bad century to come.”
Long, seemingly futile wars have sapped our energy. A sense of unity has been replaced, in too many quarters, with xenophobia, nastiness and bitter divisions exploited by cynical politicians.
A moving image in the wake of 9/11 was Republican and Democratic members of Congress standing together on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to sing “God Bless America.” Can anybody imagine that happening today?
If you think it’s impossible, ask yourself “why?”. Then ask yourself if we’re dishonoring the victims of 9/11.
IF YOU GO: The Guys will run weekends through Sept. 26 at KNOW Theatre, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25 ($20 for seniors, $15 for students) at knowtheatre.org. A pay-what-you-can night will be offered 8 p.m. Thursday (Sept. 16). Thanks to funding from the City of Binghamton, all Binghamton first responders (firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians) can get a free ticket by presenting a first responder ID at the box office for any performance.
Playwright Anne Nelson will participate in audience talkbacks following performances this Friday and Saturday (Sept. 17-18).
Due to COVID-19, all audience members must provide proof of vaccination or a negative test within 72 hours before the performance. All patrons must wear masks at all times in the building.