Theater in South Florida was once the realm of musicals and light comedies, with dramas mighty scarce. Now the scene features theater of all kinds -- fierce as well as frothy. But what remains rare are plays with immediate, topical subjects. Despite the disturbing real-life drama in contemporary America, most area theaters seem to shy away from confronting it.
GableStage isn't one of those. Joseph Adler and company tackle difficult subjects and equally difficult scripts. What other company would take on obsessive stalking (Boy Gets Girl) and James Joyce and Edward Albee and pull them all off with assurance? So when GableStage announced that it would open its current season with The Guys, it seemed an altogether fitting challenge.
You may never have heard of this script, but you know all about its subject: It's the first and perhaps still the only play to directly confront the aftermath of 9/11. Author Anne Nelson is a journalist living in Manhattan who was asked to help write speeches for a New York City fire captain who had lost most of his men in the disaster. Her series of meetings with the distraught firefighter resulted in this docudrama, which follows their brief but profound relationship, as the professional writer must give shape to profound, inarticulate grief.
The story is starkly simple, a barely fictionalized retelling of Nelson's experience. A writer, Joan (Patti Gardner), meets with Nick, the fire chief (Gordon McConnell), at her Upper West Side apartment. Their conversations are punctuated by Joan's monologues, direct addresses to the audience about her own thoughts and feelings. Wisely, Nelson keeps her story line and language simple.
Both characters face major tasks: Nick has to deliver a string of orations at the firefighters' funerals, but he can't bring himself to resort to the platitudes and generalizations about "the guys." He won't call them generic "heroes," as the media and politicians have; he knows he will be talking to the survivors -- their wives, their children, their friends -- about real, distinctly individual people. What can he say about each of them? How do you characterize a real person's life in a few words? It's Joan's job to make this happen.
Joan doesn't know how to go about this task, but she begins anyway, asking Nick to just start talking. As he does, in fits and starts, she begins to shape his thoughts. Bottled up with his grief is Nick's inability to come to terms with the loss of his men, but he manages to recover shards of memories, little anecdotes about each of them: Bill, the family man; Jim, the new trainee at the station; Barney, the orderly fix-it man; Dave, the car-crazy jokester. Each memory seems to give Nick a bit more comfort, and he starts to open up. But he gets blindsided when he recalls his best friend, Patrick, the second-in-command who happened, in a senseless quirk of fate, to be in charge on 9/11 when Nick was away. That's when Nick's grief and survivor guilt collapse on him.
But with Joan's guidance, a simple dignity emerges from Nick's emotional rambling. Much of what makes The Guys a work of merit lies in this quiet progress: How the chaos and seeming insignificance of daily life belies its true, precious essence, and how the storyteller's art can reveal it. "We have no idea what wonders lie hidden in the people around us," Joan says. No idea, until sudden loss makes us grieve for what we once had.
Adler, GableStage's director, should be commended for having the courage to take on this volatile, risky material. Beyond the vague sadness the nation as a whole has felt, many Floridians still suffer from their personal losses of 9/11. Audiences for this subject don't come for escape or information but for reasons more profound. But sadly, this production seems emotionally tone-deaf to its task. The heavy-handed production elements, though unquestionably well-intentioned, feel manipulative and obvious. You get that message from the moment you walk into the theater to be confronted -- almost assaulted -- by Tim Connelly's set. Like the play, the small thrust stage is simple, with two armchairs and a few small tables. But this simplicity is literally wrapped in an American flag, a huge plastic one that looms behind, the center of which has been pulled away to reveal an enormous panoramic photo of Lower Manhattan, the twin towers illuminated in a ghostly glow. Maybe this seemed a good idea on paper, but in practice, does anyone need any of this?
This smashmouth style carries on with the use of huge video monitors that flank the stage. The show opens and closes with Walter Collins's video collage of 9/11 footage, with all the horrible -- and horribly obvious -- footage we have seen a zillion times: the attacks, the collapse, the faces of grief all blended with idyllic shots of Americana and the famous raising of the flag at Ground Zero by firefighters. The soundtrack features "America," sung with faux-soulful excess. The intention here is surely honorable, but the effect is unintentional trivialization, with all the subtlety and depth of a Super Bowl halftime show. It's precisely the kind of pompous, weepy generalization that Nick the fire chief refuses to indulge in.
This oversimplification creeps into the play proper. The Guys is an underwritten play, lacking in dramatic dimension, but it's a huge acting challenge: to portray real people's experiences for an audience that has, to one degree or another, shared that experience. It's a rare opportunity to use theater to deliver both honesty and insight not only into the characters' experience but to the audience's. As the fire chief, Gordon McConnell scores on both points. Tall, weathered, with a receding hairline and a trim moustache, and clad in a baggy sweatshirt and work pants, McConnell is wholly plausible as the veteran firefighter. And his approach to Nick's struggle with grief, denial, guilt, and love makes for an outstanding, risk-taking performance. As he sits listening to the speech Joan has written about his guys, McConnell is absolutely still, yet all the grief and good memories ripple across his unmoving face. It's this kind of subtextual detail that makes the unseen dead leap to life in the audience's imagination.
But McConnell is only half of this story. Unfortunately, Patti Gardner is thoroughly unconvincing as Joan, delivering the sort of actor-y, nonspecific performance that passes for professionalism on too many South Florida stages. McConnell acts under the lines; Gardner acts on them, safely hitting the inflections and dodging her real task. In ordinary projects, these flaws in production and performance might be overlooked. But The Guys is another case entirely. This isn't about show business or symbolism; it's about real lives.
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