Sept. 11 tales told where dust still settles

As tools to deal with catastrophe, words can lend us momentary solace. But they offer only that, and finally fall flat.

It's a lesson we glean from the two emotionally dazed characters in "The Guys," a courageous and riveting new off-Broadway play that tackles the horror of Sept. 11 with an intimacy that's both unsettling and healing.

The play's emotional grip is drawn from the timeliness of its subject matter and the immediacy of its setting at the Flea Theater, a tiny venue seven blocks from the World Trade Center site. Until recently, chalky smoke enveloped the Tribeca neighborhood and police barricades and eye-stinging odors wafting from ground zero kept audiences away.

It's the hope of the Flea's artistic director, Jim Simpson, who commissioned the 90-minute play and enlisted two well-known actors - Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray - that "The Guys" revives the struggling theater.

Weaver (who is married to Simpson) and Murray worked together years ago in the film comedy "Ghostbusters." Here - as Joan, a journalist, and Nick, a fire captain - they play off one another with delicacy and remarkable ease in grueling roles that force them to contend with phantoms that are painfully real.

First-time playwright Anne Nelson begins by introducing us to Joan, a longtime New Yorker grappling with feelings of irrelevance in the wake of Sept. 11. She is a writer and her only tools are words. So what can she possibly offer other than compassion and the obligatory query to everyone she meets, "Are you OK?"

Through a friend, she meets Nick, a rumpled 20-year veteran who is mourning the loss of eight men in his fire company and is in need of someone to help him write their eulogies.

The result is a narrative dance straddling the border between nonfiction reporting and dramatic art. Joan gently coaxes raw memories from Nick, and crafts a simple story about each lost firefighter. Nick slowly reads it back to her. Both characters undergo a range of emotion in the process, smiling, grimacing, and weeping as each man's courage and quirks are recalled.

"People need to tell their stories," Joan says, rising from her chair on the simple set to speak directly to the audience.

Nelson, a journalist and a professor at Columbia University, finished the play in about a week. It will be interesting to see whether she revises "The Guys" after the current run ends Feb. 9. Regardless, it is a testament to Nelson, who based the play on her own experiences, that she broached this raw and delicate territory at all, and a sign of honest writing that it so vividly and sadly conjures images of the heroes who died just down the street.

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