Two great guys have taken on Anne Nelson’s play “The Guys” at Theatrical Outfit through October 6. There’s Brian Kurlander, who plays regular guy Nick, a New York City firefighter who is the only surviving member of his unit after 9/11. And then there’s Jasmine Guy, who plays Joan, an established and comfortable writer on the Upper West Side who volunteers to help Brian write eulogies for his deceased men. The characters are fictionalized, but we’re meant to understand that this is a staged version of real events. In the weeks after 9/11, playwright Nelson did volunteer to help a New York firefighter in the daunting task of writing eulogy after eulogy for an entire department that was wiped out in an instant.
The two actors do an excellent job with the material. I especially liked Guy’s direct way of speaking to the audience. She gives the character Joan an insightful, off-the-cuff sort of humor, sometimes bordering on an ironic remove that is a defense against emotion but can just as easily become an incisive tool to examine and expose it. The play depends on an actress’ ability to speak directly to an audience and to be believable and likable, and this Guy does admirably well. Kurlander likewise does a fine job depicting the wounded, kindhearted but somewhat less articulate Nick. In a monologue, Joan can only compare Nick to a tortured, traumatized animal, and Kurlander brings that sense of enormous, hidden, primal grief to the stage.
For the most part, Nelson develops the two-person drama skillfully — it runs a swift, economical 80 minutes or so — and I was more impressed than I thought I would be. Its subject makes it sound as if it could be sickeningly sweet, maudlin and overly sentimental, and although there are touches of that, smart performances, along with Nelson’s honesty and plainspokenness, help skirt that territory.
But I couldn’t shake the notion that the playwright might be guilty of a habit that’s derided nowadays as “humble bragging.” In a section about her world before 9/11, we’re given an un-ironic description of her perfect life — perfect husband, perfect children, Upper West Side apartment, private schools, a sister she pities for having to live in Park Slope (!) — and there’s also an overarching humble brag in the play’s set-up. We’re given the same situation again and again: Nick gives a heartfelt but inarticulate description of one of his men, and Joan (aka Nelson) transforms his words into a beautifully simple, perfect, moving eulogy. He is gobsmacked by her skill and praises and thanks her profusely.
And then we get the same thing again, from the top. They must write eight eulogies in all, so our mental countdown begins, and that structure starts to feel rigid and predictable, though it’s nicely broken up by Guy’s sensitive and intimate rendering of Joan’s monologues. Along the way, we pass by all the 9/11 cliches: “where were you when it happened?,” “everything changed” and so on. I think Nelson touches on all of them except “the sky was so blue that day.”
“The Guys” doesn’t dwell explicitly on the class differences between Joan and Nick, but there’s an overriding sense of Brian’s difference, and occasionally it can feel as if Nelson conceptualizes the experience in an icky way: she had a visit from a real 9/11 firefighter, a real regular guy in her fancy apartment. It’s as if she’d been visited by a talking bear and then rushed to write down everything he said to turn it into a play.
Still, the drama packs a lot into its sleek 80 minutes, and though the script and concept won’t exactly be everyone’s cup of joe, it’s hard not to be moved by the characters’ efforts to understand each other and their mutual search for meaning in the face of an incomprehensibly tragic event.