NEW YORK — At moments, these four, distinctly individual young men seem truly to become a single organism — an eight-armed, eight-legged industrial animal, coaxing what they call “the magic” from molten steel. Watching the quartet of actors performing their characters’ cadenced daily labors in Kieran Knowles’ gripping “Operation Crucible,” at 59E59 Theaters, it’s impossible not to feel the warming reassurance of reliable interdependence.
Such are the cruel disruptions of war visited on Sheffield, England, during mid-December in 1940. That was when German Lutfwaffe bombers killed more than 660 people in the Yorkshire city, which had become a center for munitions manufacturing, and left another 40,000 homeless.
Those statistics are not recited in “Operation Crucible,” which opened on Tuesday night as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival. This production, powerfully directed with a machine-tooled precision of its own by Bryony Shanahan, limits its point of view to that of four people surprised by what would later be known as the Sheffield Blitz. (“Crucible” was the German code name for the mission.)
Yet this intimate viewpoint only increases our sense of the enormity of that event. It is hard to think of another play that captures so efficiently the dividing, before and after, of war’s devastation. And it is all accomplished on a single simple set, with a cast of four and 80 minutes of stage time.
This achievement is the more impressive when you realize that “Operation Crucible” is the debut play of Knowles, an actor who appears as a member of the cast. A wealth of research obviously informs his script, yet it is woven with a confident seamlessness into a story of men who, for much of our time with them, can barely see what’s in front of them.
I mean that literally. Bob (Salvatore D’Aquila), Tommy (Knowles), Phil (Christopher McCurry) and Arthur (James Wallwork) are longtime workmates who find themselves trapped in a hotel basement, where they have sought shelter. “Operation Crucible” dares to leave us — and them — in the dark for stretches of time. And much of the play’s tension comes from our feeling their ignorance of what exactly is happening to their city and what awaits them.
Knowles also uses theatrical license to enter the heads of all of his characters and let us see what they’re thinking about in their captivity. That includes choicely detailed scenes from childhood, from local soccer games and, above all, their shared workplace, which has become as much of a home to them as the houses they share with their families.
The balancing of visions of then and now — and briefly, at the end, of the future — is artfully managed throughout. The play begins with a description of Sheffield on fire, immediately after the bombing, as seen by a numbed, disoriented Arthur. This suddenly unhinged universe is described with exact, simple and resounding eloquence.
“The light’s blinding, but it’s not bright, just gray,” he says. And: “The weather isn’t. It isn’t this. It isn’t that. It just isn’t.”
And then we are in the steelworks, before the carnage, in a kind of indefinite present. Here the men not only describe what they do at the steel plant — creating detail work for war planes — they also embody it, in a ballet of interlinked limbs and bending bodies, their sweat towels draped about their necks. “Turn, turn,” they say together. “Brush, brush.”
By degrees, we learn the history of each man. They are not, mercifully, of the classic spectrum of types so frequently found in war movies. Instead, they are testaments to how any group of people, so superficially similar, emerges as disparate individuals when observed in steady close-up.
They tease and haze one another, recall their initiations into the factory and describe their wartime lives with their families as non-soldiers, including their respective, provisional bomb shelters. Glimmers of personal guilt and fear surface now and then, feelings that later become intense and divisive when they’re waiting for deliverance from the bombed hotel.
But for the moment, what we’re most aware of is the pride and sense of safety these men take from working as a team in a job that is not without its dangers. This makes the utter helplessness that later enfolds them all the sadder, as each actor subtly conveys a sudden awareness of brutal aloneness.
I first saw “Operation Crucible” three years ago in London, at the tiny Finborough Theater (even smaller than the upstairs space at 59E59), and the claustrophobia was almost overwhelming. The production here, which features three of the same actors (the excellent McCurry is new), allows theatergoers greater physical comfort. But the show’s emotional grasp remains firm.
That is, in part, because there is not a wasted word or gesture. Sophia Simensky’s set and costumes are as basic as can be, yet surprisingly mutable, too, especially as enhanced by Seth Rook Williams’ carefully shaded lighting and Daniel Foxsmith’s ominous sound design.
And as the four actors go through their characters’ rituals of work and friendship, with annotative asides, an entire civilization is conjured in homey, microcosmic detail. A world that might, in other contexts, feel mundane acquires the bright, searing poetry that illuminates things familiar when they’re about to disappear forever.
Through June 3 at 59E59 Theaters, Manhattan; 212-279-4200, 59e59.org. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.
By Kieran Knowles; directed by Bryony Shanahan; sets and costumes by Sophia Simensky; lighting by Seth Rook Williams; sound by Daniel Foxsmith; stage manager, Sofia Montgomery. Presented by 59E59 Theaters for Brits Off Broadway.
Cast: Salvatore D’Aquila (Bob), Kieran Knowles (Tommy), Christopher McCurry (Phil) and James Wallwork (Arthur).
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.