It’s easy to recognize Joan, the writer at the center of Anne Nelson’s The Guys. Two items on a simple set composed of a pair of chairs and a table suggest her living room: a Channel 13 tote bag and a copy of Listening to Prozac. Her pre-war apartment on the Upper West Side is rent-controlled, she tells us in an opening monologue, and it’s “Filled with music and books. A husband who liked opera more than football. Two charming children in a good private school.” She voted for Mark Green last fall. Three times.
Because a typical downtown theater audience is educated, liberal, artsy, and upper-middle-class, Joan makes a suitable stand-in for us as she responds to the calamity of September 11. It’s not just the stunned anxiety, the deepening well of sadness, the intensified passion for New York and its inhabitants that feel so familiar in Joan’s carefully articulated descriptions. It’s also the desperate desire to make something useful of herself in the crisis, to break out of the emergency-parlance category of “non-essential personnel.” As she recalls, “They didn’t want amateurs around the site. They didn’t want our blood. . . . Plumbers and carpenters first, they said. Intellectuals to the back of the line.”
Joan—like playwright Nelson, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, who based this earnest first play on her own experience—finds a function when she hooks up with Nick, a fire captain who needs help writing eulogies for eight of his men lost in the rescue effort at the World Trade Center. The Guys chronicles their initially timid, then thickening connection as Joan lends her journalistic tools to Nick’s overwhelming grief. We watch her interview him about each of the lost firefighters and then turn Nick’s reminiscences (“Not a big guy. Reddish hair. . . . All the junior men relied on him. . . . Never talked about himself”) into polished tributes: “We’ve been hearing a lot about heroes, and Bill was one of them. He gave his life for others, and that is a noble thing. But Bill was a quiet hero. Never one to show off, never blustered. . . . ”
Along the way, Nick brings to life the mundane details of his men—cooking in the firehouse, tinkering on cars in their backyards, making salad for the church picnic. And Joan muses on how these stories of men she would hardly have noticed under normal circumstances make her realize that “we have no idea what wonders lie hidden in the people around us.”
In the commanding, comfortable hands of actors Sigourney Weaver and Bill Irwin (taking the place of Bill Murray after the show’s first few weeks), Joan and Nick are engaging, direct, and reassuringly ordinary. But then, commenting on the performances, or even on Nelson’s writing, seems beside the point with this production, which provides a more ritual than aesthetic experience.
As time passes, The Guys may come to seem shallow, even clichéd, not because it doesn’t deal in authentic emotions, but because it offers little critical distance on them. A future, more sophisticated version, for instance, might notice how much is actually lost when a life is summed up in the pleasing frame of a eulogy, and the artifices of heroic narrative brush away the beautiful, specific unruliness of an individual: Joan’s crafted paeans are so much less interesting than Nick’s stumbling recollections.
Irony died on 9-11, folks have said, inadvertently announcing the death of drama, too. Theater, after all, is a form whose very life depends on the push-and-pull of engagement and distance. How much distance we will need before we can make complex drama in response to the catastrophe remains to be seen. In the meantime, The Guys creates a welcome space of tenderness and honor.
Thick layers of irony are what make Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 1627 cape-and-sword comedy, The Phantom Lady, stay so rich after nearly 400 years. Director René Buch and a zingy resident acting company at the Pearl Theatre grab onto the play’s self-referential critique of courtly comportment with multifaceted flair. Mocking macho posturing (hyperbolic talk about “honor,” sudden sword-drawing, and a hilarious deflation of a man’s efforts to compare his beloved to the sun) and ridiculing male efforts to suppress women’s desire (again, the issue of “honor”), the play centers on a young widow, Doña Angela, and her brothers’ insistence on cooping her up to protect her chastity. But Doña Angela (in a charming performance by Celeste Ciulla) has different ideas about taking advantage of “the freedom I have gained in widowhood.” A secret panel in her prison of a room, opening into an adjacent guest room—and the arrival of one brother’s old friend, the dapper Don Manuel, who occupies said guest room—extend that advantage. Add a jittery servant (the rubber-limbed Dominic Cuskern) and a spiteful brother with the credo “the last resort of jealousy is to ruin the happiness of others” (played with appealing smarm by Jason Manuel Olazábal), and you have the fine-tuned mechanism of an intricate comic plot. Buch and company let it unwind in all its accelerating exuberance.