Theatrical Outfit’s 9/11 drama packs a punch more visual than visceral

It would take a mighty coldhearted person not to be moved by Anne Nelson’s “The Guys.” Set in the devastating days and weeks immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the two-character drama involves Nick, a New York City fire captain, and Joan, the worldly editor he enlists to write eulogies for the eight men from his unit who heroically perished in the tragedy.

With an unmistakable sense of urgency, “The Guys” debuted in December 2001, in the very heat of the moment, as it were. Although time may have healed some of the raw wounds, to see it 12 years later in director Elisa Carlson’s strikingly designed staging for Theatrical Outfit, the play is no less potent or profound — and perhaps even more so.

In frequent asides to the audience, Joan attempts to put those horrific events into a larger perspective. But what might have felt hypothetical or wishful about her monologues back then now seems to reveal a keen foresight on Nelson’s part.

The one-act drama largely unfolds in Joan’s upscale Manhattan brownstone. Lizz Dorsey’s handsome set makes perfect use of the brick wall that always lines the back of the Outfit stage, and she also incorporates scenery that suggests such landmarks as the George Washington Bridge and the archway of the Holland Tunnel. Mike Post’s lighting beautifully conveys the play’s subtle shifts in mood. Kendall Simpson’s sound design and original music figure powerfully, too, if sparingly.

No one in particular is credited in the program for creating the show’s video projections, alas, but Carlson employs them to uncommonly arresting and haunting effect, alternating between montages of snapshot photos and live-action images. Among the most indelible impressions: As Joan talks about Nick’s fallen men as “shadows,” their silhouettes appear against the scrim that outlines the set; as the two characters recount the collapse of the twin towers, the skies are suddenly showered with falling paper and debris.

That the emotional component of the production comes up a little short could be logical and intentional. After all, were Nick able to fully express his own heartaches, he wouldn’t need help writing them down. And Joan essentially admits to relying on her intellect as a kind of coping mechanism. In a few of her sidebars, she pontificates about “the science of pain,” about 9/11 as “the moment that marked an end of the post-modern era” and about how the aftershocks leave her feeling “muted.”

Based on her opening-night performance, at least, Jasmine Guy’s Joan seems slightly tentative, as though the actress were occasionally struggling just to remember her lines, let alone giving them the depth or conviction to validate the play’s subsequent assertion that Joan is a “suffering emotional wreck.” Ultimately, the character doesn’t feel reserved so much as aloof.

Brian Kurlander fares more strongly as Nick, who wants to extol the virtues of his late colleagues as “recognizable humans” rather than “plaster saints.” Fittingly, even without Joan (that is, Nelson) putting any eloquent words in his mouth, Kurlander skillfully portrays the conflict of an “ordinary guy” grappling with extraordinary events.

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