July 18, 2002



at the Actors' Gang


Reviewed by Rob Kendt


In her intentionally maudlin reader's-theatre thingy The Guys, first-time playwright Anne Nelson offers many post-Sept. 11 eulogies--for heroic individual firefighters, for once-indomitable New York's fragile state of mind--but the epitaph that's particularly revealing is her pronouncement that the attacks on the World Trade Center marked "the end of the postmodern era." Like those who prematurely predicted the "end of irony" in the immediate aftermath of our national trauma, Nelson simply spoke too soon; our hall-of-mirrors popular culture continues to thrive on film franchises, reality TV, musicals based on films, and borderless, unmediated information exchange; and our chattering class of pundits and academics seems no less skeptical, self-conscious, or, well, chattery than before.


It's not fair to hold a writer accountable for every expired insight, but Nelson's sendoff for the "postmodern era" is hard to ignore while watching The Guys, precisely because such docu-theatre events--which blur traditional categories of truth and fiction, reporting and reenacting, entertainment and storytelling--are nothing if not products of our postmodern age, in which politics is a TV genre and theatre has proven itself an essential reporting medium (Twilight, The Laramie Project). But then this confusion of purpose is typical of Nelson's already dated play, and even more so of this new West Coast premiere "production" at the Actors' Gang. At $40 a head ($15 for firefighters or cops), this unremarkable 80-minute piece, featuring two actors on script at music stands--Tim Robbins and Helen Hunt at opening, to be replaced by other celebrity actors throughout an indefinite run--is benefit material, the theatrical equivalent of a commemorative plate. The beneficiary isn't a 9/11 charity or the Red Cross, though; apparently it's the Actors' Gang.


The Guys probably still has some resonance where it's running (now starring Carol Kane and Stephen Lang!) just walking distance from Ground Zero at the off-Off-Broadway Flea Theatre, which commissioned this quickie valentine from Nelson. And it's easy to understand how, just months after the attacks, its straightforward probing of wounds and heartfelt words of mourning must have felt like a healing salve. As a time capsule of the strong, irreducible emotions of that moment, The Guys may be as worthy a document in its own way as any NY Times "Portrait of Grief," American flag pin, or celebrity benefit concert.


But I think it's fair to say that, while none of us will ever fully move beyond the horror of that instant, irrevocable loss, or can ever repay the debt to those who died in service on that day, we have moved to the point of asking that any work of art that dares to deal with Sept. 11, either in its full enormity or in some small personal way, fulfill some basic requirements of art, even postmodern art: craft, inspiration, insight, intelligence. Nelson's piece, as narrated by a journalist called on to write eulogies for a New York fire captain who lost eight men, is full of first-rate reportage, with many telling details about New York firefighters and their hearteningly old-fashioned code of honor, their tight-lipped male camaraderie, their modest but unshakeable faith in their calling. And it has a few genuine moments of communion, some comic and some dramatic, as a well-educated Upper West Side writer connects with a plain-spoken Brooklyn civil servant.


Hunt and Robbins, under Robert Egan's often over-emphatic direction, make the characters' give-and-take work well enough, if not exactly spring to life. But Robbins' character is a cipher--a window through which we see "the guys" but from which nothing personal or specific reflects. And Nelson gives her stand-in, the writer, a series of monologues--thoughts about the inter-connectedness of New Yorkers, cries to God for a reason or redress--that the rosy-cheeked Hunt gamely plays for all their freshness or revelation, which is to say she has nothing to play.


It's inarguable that all of us had deep, profound reactions to Sept. 11; some of us even had deep, profound thoughts. Indeed, for a while, everything was freighted, seemingly minted with new meaning; The Guys was conceived and initially offered in that state of grace. By this point it's clear that such grace and goodwill--not to mention time and money--is not limitless, but must be saved for the truly deserving.


"The Guys," presented by and at the Actors' Gang, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Wed.-Sat. 7 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. July 10-28. $40. (323) 465-0566.