Playwright: Anne Nelson
At: Piven Theatre Workshop
at the Lakeshore Theater
Phone: (773) 472-3492
Runs through: Feb. 26
BY RICK REED
Sept. 11 and its aftermath changed our world forever. Initially spawning a wave of feverish, unquestioning patriotism, things have quieted down, although the U.S., and the world, have become a different, warier, place. Near the end of The Guys, the play based upon the experiences of journalist Anne Nelson, who helped a New York fire captain write eulogies for the lost men in his company, she wonders if the world will ever return to normal. The answer is yes, but it's a different kind of normal.
The Guys was written by Nelson over nine late nights, at the behest of Jim Simpson, director at New York Flea Theatre, which was just a few blocks away from Ground Zero. The play attracted the attention of Simpson's wife, Sigourney Weaver and her friend, Bill Murray, who initially played the journalist and the fire captain in the debut production at the Flea. The play was an enormous success and has resulted in the touring company which debuted at the Lakeshore Theater (the Goodman, in cooperation with North Light Theater, also gave it a Chicago production last fall), and in an upcoming film. Like many New Yorkers, Nelson wanted to do something to help after Sept. 11, but the only tools she had at her disposal were her words, which she used to help the fire captain memorialize the many men he had lost in the attack.
The Piven Theatre's Chicago staging of the work, under the direction of Steppenwolf veteran Anna D. Shapiro, is a simple, moving experience. The play is part monologue, by the character who stands in for Anne Nelson, and part dialogue, as she sits with the fire captain and tries to get at the humanity of the men he has lost, so she can craft something real and unique to say about each one.
Jeremy Piven, a film and television actor probably best known for his regular role on Ellen, and Alicia Goranson, who played the original Becky on the Roseanne sitcom, tackle the two roles, with differing results. Piven is completely believable as the captain, even if he is a bit young for the part. But his 'regular guy' sincerity, body language, and simple line delivery make his age a moot point. And, although Alicia Goranson gives a good effort at creating the journalist around whom the play revolves, she could never quite overcome the fact that she was just too young for the part. Goranson, on opening night, seemed a little stiff, a little nervous, and maybe this was because she lacked the constitutional maturity to bring real credibility to the role.
Although I know the keynote of The Guys is simplicity, I had trouble swallowing the 'staged reading' approach (the actors read their lines from notebooks). It was distracting and took us out of the moment, constantly reminding us that we were watching actors, and not the characters they were meant to portray. The decision to not memorize lines seemed a lazy one … and it didn't quite work for me.
What did work for me, however, was the power of Nelson's words, which were simple, heartfelt, and never maudlin. The simplicity, earnestness, and grace of her story overcame any of the quibbles I mentioned above, making The Guys a deeply moving experience, a true eulogy for the date that affected us all.