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Journalist Anne Nelson's first play, The Guys, a problematic docudrama that's been running off-Broadway since December, chronicles the emotional impact of the September 11 terrorist attacks on two New Yorkers: a fire department captain who's lost 14 men, and Nelson herself, thinly disguised as a journalist named Joan. While Nelson does an adequate job articulating her grief, giving her fictional alter ego long asides in which to detail her ongoing bewilderment and despair, her decision to depict herself as the captain's idealized bereavement counselor feels like the height of self-aggrandizement. The captain has to deliver eight eulogies in a week's time but can't write a word; Joan comes to the rescue, not only composing swift, eloquent tributes to perfect strangers (as Nelson herself reportedly did) but supplying perfect words of comfort to the distraught captain again and again. And though she's the director of the international program at Columbia University's J-school, Nelson refuses to consider any political context for the attacks: there is "no explanation, no reason" for them, Joan insists. But the consistently astonishing Mary Beth Fisher portrays her character with enough conviction and candor to make these fundamental flaws seem like trivial imperfections. Nelson does achieve real success in capturing the good-natured but dispirited firefighter and the pointed stories he tells about his lost colleagues, and B.J. Jones's masterful portrayal of him brings home the steep human cost of terror. Although like Fisher he carries a script in this staged reading, he finds every nuance in his character as though he'd been developing the role for months--all without raising his voice or going to any other emotional extremes. His is perhaps the most affecting performance of the year. Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800. Through September 14: Thursday, 7:30 PM; Friday, 8 PM; Saturday, 7 and 9:30 PM. Free, but reservations required. Then September 17-22: Tuesday-Friday, 8 PM; Saturday, 7 and 9:30 PM; Sunday, 8 PM. $15.

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