"The Guys" at MPC Studio Theatre

Two chairs on a sparsely decorated stage, two cups of coffee.  Two voices, a woman, a man.

Two planes.  Two towers.

Nothing about the tragedy of 9/11—the collapse of the towers, the number killed, the wars it spawned, the way it changed how we live—none of it was small.  For many, the reality of what occurred was too big to take in.  How to talk about it?  How to tell a story about it?

A dozen years on, artists are still struggling with how to convey what happened that day.

In Anne Nelson’s “The Guys,” currently showing at the MPC Studio Theatre in a poignant production directed by Laura Coté, a New York firefighter asks a local writer to help him compose funeral remarks about the men of his company who went into one of the towers and never came out.  The small size of the Studio Theatre and the intimate storytelling quality of Nelson’s work create a space—theatrical, and also emotional—for the viewer to revisit, on a human scale, those terrible days, to experience the grief of 9/11 without feeling overwhelmed by it.

Nick (Gary Bolen) is proud of his men and their mission to save lives.  The onslaught of so much death on 9/11, the maddening senselessness of it, has nearly undone him.  Bolen gives a moving performance as a man shaken by grief, yet quietly stoic and committed to doing right by his men and their memory.

Joan (Jennifer L. Newman) is a journalist whose younger adventurous self—dangerous experiences in Central America, ideological passion—has given way to a more comfortable lifestyle.  When she is contacted by Nick for her help, she is astonished: Someone actually needs a writer?

Newman gives a strong, committed performance as a woman desperate to be of service during a time when so many felt useless and unsure how to help.  “I have nothing to bring to the table!” she exclaims, struck by the enormity of the pain around her and her own powerlessness to do anything about it.

Both Nick and Joan suffer from survivor’s guilt; with a slight change in scheduling, Nick could easily have been one of the dead men he now mourns.  But he isn’t.

Joan draws out from Nick the stories of the men, scribbles sentences on a yellow legal pad, then gives it to Nick to read aloud.  Nelson’s portrayal of the collaborative creative process is convincing: as any writer knows, the heart of a story lies in its details, and it is enjoyable to watch Joan coax Nick into remembering specific qualities and episodes from the lives of “the guys.”

Less successful in “The Guys” is the absence of any real tension between Nick and Joan.  Both are anxious to be kind to each other, even as each suffers his or her own private torments.  But for theatre—for any story—to work there must be conflict, which it is the story’s job to resolve.  Here all the conflicts feel off-stage, or in the characters’ minds.  Bolen and Newman fully and skillfully invest Nick and Joan with deep humanity, giving voice to and embodying the heightened emotion of that time.  But without any spark of conflict in the script, the play is ultimately less than satisfying.

This is not entirely surprising; “The Guys” was written and performed in New York (by Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver) mere weeks after September 11, 2001.  Its purpose was to address the immediate trauma of 9/11, to tell a story about—and for—those who had experienced it.  “The Guys” is about connection, about finding solace and common ground with people who are different, and about the ways tragedy can erase those differences, at least for a time.  Seen in that light, it is a more than a memorial play.  It is also a reminder of how, in those frightening days, people opened up to the idea that what we need, more than anything, is each other.

"The Guys," at MPC's Studio Theatre, through Sunday, September 15.