Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray
in The Guys(Photo: CG Rubio, Egg the Arts Show, Thirteen/WNET)
Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray
in The Guys
(Photo: CG Rubio, Egg the Arts Show, Thirteen/WNET)
It's often said that holocausts are difficult, if not impossible, to write about. And yet, out of horror or frustration or a sense of helplessness or a need to pitch in, writers insist on wrestling with the subject. Many playwrights are undoubtedly at work right now, dramatizing their responses to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, transmuting their thoughts and emotions into characters and dialogue. They've come to realize, as so many did in the days after September 11, that the best way to go forward is to do what one does best.

The first produced of these response pieces has set a high standard and, astonishingly it's not the work of a longtime practitioner; it's first-time playwright Anne Nelson's two-hander The Guys. This profoundly understanding and involving 90-minute play came to be when Flea Theater artistic director Jim Simpson, at the suggestion of a company member, sought out a cathartic work to heal psychic and financial wounds sustained from being located so close to ground zero. He found The Guys, which Nelson seems to have written from two hearts--her own and that of a grieving fireman. Joan (Sigourney Weaver) is an editor like Nelson, devastated by the catastrophic events of 9/11 and disturbed by what she sees as her irrelevance to the recovery. She jumps at the chance to help Nick (Bill Murray), a tongue-tied fire department captain, compose eulogies for the men he's lost.

The genius here is in the simplicity of Nelson's set-up: She's found both a stand-in for those grieving over family and friends and a stand-in for those spared immediate personal loss but feeling immobilized by damaged understanding. As The Guys unfolds, Nick tells Joan what he knows about his associates and she turns the facts and feelings into eulogies; then either Nick or Joan read them aloud to test their appropriateness. That's it, and it's more than enough.

Along the way, Nick becomes the voice of what seems like hundreds of bereft firemen who may be thinking they've suddenly been acclaimed heroes without necessarily believing they fit the part--not when it's their buddies who are dead. These men, Nelson makes clear, are not the uncomplicated, selfless fellows currently being lionized, though she also has Nick declare that "this is the best job in the world." Giving Joan some background on four of "the guys," as he continually calls them, Nick illustrates that each was complex in his own way. They include the cut-up welder; the eager kid only two weeks into his service; and Patrick, the veteran lieutenant who happened to be Nick's best friend. In the lighter moments that Nelson skillfully slips into the melancholy proceedings, Nick explains some fire-fighting basics. And, in an unexpected revelation, he expresses his passion for the tango.

Joan, who occasionally steps in and out of a separate spotlight as the distraught narrator, represents that segment of New York's population experiencing an unquenchable urge to be useful. In a series of quick strokes, Nelson conjures a believable Upper West Side sophisticate who'd come to Manhattan from Oklahoma and, in time, thought she'd nailed down the good life. Joan talks about the prevalence nowadays of the question "Are you okay?" She explains her ripple theory of the afflicted. She fantasizes about tangoing with Nick. In an outraged metaphorical and metaphysical digression, she gets caught up in explaining how cortisol released in the brain causes irreversible deterioration. Finally, Joan puts forth the impossible conditions under which she would accept reparation: She wants world events to go into reverse in the manner of news footage run backwards. (Nelson understands that the wish-fulfillment plea is a symptom of denial that is still relevant.)

Director Simpson gives The Guys a production as distilled as the premise. On the room's polished hardwood floors, set and lighting designer Kyle Chepulis has placed two comfortable chairs and two low tables on which a few props rest. There are also music stands on which the actors, garbed unobtrusively in street clothes chosen by costume designer Claudia Brown, place their texts. Simpson's work is often extremely energetic, but he has adopted a less-is-more approach for this enterprise. There's a whole lot of sitting and note-taking going on here; indeed, the only real movement is the minute-long tango, performed to music composed by Nelson. This stripped-down approach to the material couldn't be righter.

The performances, however, are anything but stripped down. Weaver sees Joan as a women who, while speaking to you, is forever looping her long hair behind her ears. She's intelligent and witty ("How many times did I vote for Mark Green?" she asks herself ruminatively), but she's also anxious, and both the anxiety and the intellect show in her eyes. Weaver has played variations on this character before, but never so economically. She may not be doing much physically but she makes it manifest that Joan's mind is never at rest: The woman has been disillusioned, Weaver shows, and her recovery will be slow and probably incomplete. "It's the new normal," she says, with pain on her face.

Bill Murray, as Nick, hasn't played anything like this role before. Nevertheless he is astonishing. What he's doing as Nick is great acting in that he has completely disappeared into the part. Leaning back uneasily in his chair and occasionally fingering his shirttail, he's the Irish fireman down the block, humble and quietly philosophical. But he's today's fireman down the block, suffering but uncomfortable in venting his feelings to a stranger. When Nick breaks down while listening to the speech Joan has written for him to read at Patrick's memorial service, Murray is moving without giving himself over to the sentimentality into which Nelson's script occasionaly threatens to descend but consistently avoids. Every emotion, from concern to fear to excitement to dedication to reflection, plays across Murray's lined face, and it's amazing to watch. Right, now there's probably no one in the city giving a better, more burnished performance--the kind that, were it to appear on screen, would automatically lead to Oscar talk. (Murray finishes his run this weekend; Bill Irwin will follow him for two-weeks. Weaver will continue in the play for the foreseeable future.)

There's no need for anyone to be reminded how hard New York City was hit by the September 11 attacks. People like Joan, who are seeking the rays of good that might flash from such incomprehensible evil, will find at least one dazzling glint in Anne Nelson's The Guys.