The American Repertory Theater has a new home at Bittner Hall, a sobering space inside the Church of the Ascension on North Street. The proscenium has a shallow stage, putting us face to face with our actors, an entirely different sensation than the odd, deep stage at ART's former space, Buffalo East. This space is inspiring, institutional, academic. It feels right for a production of Anne Nelson's harrowing play, "The Guys."
Nelson's two-person play is not enticing on paper: in the days following Sept. 11, 2001, a fire captain and freelance writer meet to write eulogies for eight of the captain's fallen men. Their mourning comes from different places but winds up more connected than they had thought. It is raw, without much dressing, and as honest as a play can get without being labeled a documentary.
Andrea Andolina is Joan, a young mother with some free time. She writes, though can't find too much work these days, the near-collapse of the publishing market being her own looming darkness. Andolina gets inside Joan in a totally convincing way, reciting everyday phrases with candidness.
Her monologues, which break up scenes shared with Victor Morales, as captain Nick, are Andolina's best work. She emotes Andrea's inner monologue the way an intimate diary documents it. Her scene work with Morales feels a little less real, though. It seems a common trap of plays with modern-day dialogue; if language and lingo are fashioned in a "real" way, the way people actually talk, it almost never sounds real when rehearsed and recited.
Her monologues are where she can express herself dramatically. But where dialogue with Morales becomes increasingly raw, unquestionably real, we wonder where her own disbelief is. Sometimes she feels like she's only hearing about that day for the first time, instead of coming to the table with her own grief. That's where their paths can meet, from their different but authentic perspectives. It's hard to picture their connection always being so full of impact when she has a tendency to feel removed. She's a writer after all; she's aware of her thoughts. We should be, too.
Even so, this is only a minor debit from her stunning monologue work.
Morales feels as real as you can get, a feat in a role that is assumedly not of his own vocabulary. Given the weight of Nick's ordeal, Morales is smart to take on a smile or laugh, here or there, without breaking type. He's not afraid to enjoy a moment, or be spontaneous about it. That helps ground his many difficult passages. It heals us as much as it might have healed him to know that there is light left in his darkened, blackened soul.
When the two discover a shared interest in tango dancing, the lightness in their feet is a fresh breath. They need it, and we need it, especially as we head into intermission.
These tangents, in which Joan and Nick forget why they're meeting in the first place, are necessary for their post-traumatic survival. They're crucial for our own reflective muscles, too. Eleven years later, the trauma ought to come less regularly. But when it comes back, it comes strong. It's a hit in the gut, silencing everything else around us.
Maybe that's the brutal art in this: there's too much horror to resolve. And so it goes on, every day, as long as it takes. This production does a serviceable job of testifying on behalf of those touched immediately, remotely or some place entirely removed.