I know that's a minority opinion, and I'll probably get hate mail for it. But Springsteen's album is packed with half-sincere songs that were clearly written from headlines, not from the singer's own emotions, and The Guys -- strangely -- feels just as flat. It's an edited transcript of an interview with a fire captain who lost most of his men in the Twin Towers. The material should be powerful, and the raw, true details naturally are. But playwright Anne Nelson and the directors who developed this show have come up with "honest" touches that seem forced and artificial.
The script has a nice underdog story; it was never meant to be a play. Nelson is a Columbia journalism professor who helped the fire captain compose a handful of spoken eulogies for his men. The transcript of their conversation was powerful enough that Nelson thought it might work onstage. She reworked it in nine days, and by December 2001 the tiny Flea Theatre in Lower Manhattan had a play about a journalist and one of FDNY's finest struggling to deal with his grief. It became the first major off-Broadway triumph in New York after Sept. 11.
Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver were the first stars of the show, and it played at the Flea with a revolving cast for a full year before moving to L.A., where the likes of Helen Hunt and Tim Robbins took turns as "Joan" and "Nick" at Robbins' Actors' Gang Theatre. Robert Egan, who directed the L.A. show as well as this Berkeley Rep production, encourages his actors to perform with scripts in hand. "What began as a useful rehearsal tool," he explains in a program note, "soon emerged as an essential conceit for the play." His reasoning is high-minded and Brechtian: "By keeping the script visible, we are constantly reminded that this is not about actors losing themselves in fictional characters, but rather members of our artistic community bearing witness and creating a living testimonial to the lives lost on 9/11."
If that sounds like a fancy excuse for actors who don't know their lines, it is.
I saw cast No. 2: Lorraine Toussaint and Dan Lauria. In Berkeley the revolving casts change every week or two, and the actors don't have much time to rehearse. Toussaint performed with a script, but Lauria didn't, because he's performed the role of Nick off and on for a year. He did beautifully. The captain, of course, is a meatier role, because he gets to speak natural, mostly uninvented lines, and call up a lot of unprocessed grief. Toussaint had to struggle with the role of Joan, partly because she hadn't mastered her dialogue. It wasn't just that she kept referring to her script; she hadn't found the nuances of tone and style that develop in serious rehearsal. Joan is also a thin and self-conscious role: The playwright uses her to explain herself, to excuse the spectacle of an Upper West Side professor stepping into the tough world of New York firemen right after 346 of them have died in a horrible, inexplicable attack. At one point, Joan says that under non-9/11 circumstances, "you couldn't create a sequence for his life to lead to me," and vice versa. To me that's total nonsense. How about a fire in her building?
Lauria looks the part of a square-faced fireman, gruff and portly, with gray '50s-styled hair and a kindly smile. He has all the mannerisms of a man who feels he can't express himself, and watching Joan draw him out of his emotional cave may be the whole point of the play. When she asks the right questions, he talks about Bill Doherty, a "regular guy" and the firehouse food critic, who razzed his buddies for the terrible meals they cooked in the station. He tells her about Barney, a German-American welder who invented new items to use around the station, and about Patrick, the captain's best friend, who was a natural leader and seemed to leave the largest hole in Nick's chest. Details of life in the firehouse give us a sense of the FDNY's loss that day, and paint in what Joan calls the media's "plaster saints." Nick agrees: "I keep hearin' the speeches of the politicians on TV," he says, "I see the pictures, hero this, hero that -- I don't even recognize them."
But the show comes with its own upholstery, including reverent photographs of the World Trade Center before and during the collapse, accompanied by choral singing and swelling violins (composed by Jan Kaczamarek). A sort of emotional correctness dominates -- the way it does on Springsteen's album -- at the expense of real emotion. You can't blame Nelson for it. Catastrophes take years to process, and a great and definitive work of art about Sept. 11 is probably some distance off. Until then we have pieces like The Guys, which at its best is not great drama but rather a vital ground-zero documentary.