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Theatre in Review: Dying City (Second Stage Theater/Tony Kiser Theater)

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Colin Woodell. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Dying City is a tightly focused, intimate drama that aims to lay bare the divided soul of America. (The play is set in 2004 and 2005, but the rips in the social fabric that it depicts are very much of today.) It's a tall order, and it is undermined by playwright Christopher Shinn's sometimes clumsy dramaturgy, which is wedded to an unconvincing narrative gimmick. Then again, Shinn, acting as his own director, delivers a production that, to my mind, is vastly superior to the 2007 New York premiere, which was directed by James G. MacDonald. At the very least, the current version allow two very gifted performers to make their New York debuts.

A three-character drama written to be performed by two actors, Dying City focuses on the bitter aftermath of the second Iraq War, when, following the removal of Saddam Hussein, confusion and ineptitude reigned. It begins with a reunion between Kelly, a widowed therapist, and Peter, her brother-in-law; it's a surprisingly tense, awkward affair, their dialogue filled with elisions and the atmosphere thick with unspoken thoughts. They haven't seen each other since the funeral of Craig, Peter's brother and Kelly's husband; indeed, Kelly has gone to some effort -- including unlisting her phone number -- to stay out of touch. Is it because Peter and Craig were identical twins and the sight of Peter is too painful to her?

That would be the simple explanation, but the situation is loaded with darker undercurrents. Peter, a successful actor -- not entirely convincingly, he has joined a production of Long Day's Journey into Night in order to be in the same city as Kelly -- is showing signs of unraveling. He has dumped his longtime boyfriend, Tim -- the Paxil that Tim takes is killing their sex life -- and has walked offstage in mid-performance, following a shockingly -- and not terribly convincing -- homophobic incident with one of his co-stars. (This event is seen in a startlingly different light later on, although it remains appalling.) Peter is, arguably, a mess, and one reason that Kelly has been avoiding him is that he has written her a letter making a stunningly inappropriate request.

Over time, a fuller, more distressing picture emerges. Peter and Craig were raised in the Midwest by their manipulative mother and abusive Vietnam-veteran dad. Both young men fought their way out, Peter making a career in show business and Craig landing at Harvard and later pursuing a PhD in American literature. But being cut off from their roots -- their mother now frankly resents them -- has left both of them adrift. Peter is jittery, fundamentally rudderless, chasing fruitlessly after artistic satisfaction, and self-medicating with sex. Craig, immersed in Faulkner, Melville, and Hemingway, saw the war as a call to meaningful action. And yet, early on, it is made clear that there was something highly irregular about his death.

Before the evening is over -- as Kelly and Peter fence, delicately at first and ferociously later on -- Shinn reveals many links in the chain - including abuse, dishonesty, and toxic forms of masculinity -- that has brought all three characters to death and/or disillusionment. In its best moments, Dying City is deeply thoughtful about the toxic cultural climate that is twenty-first-century America, where politics is tribal, meaning is elusive, and glibness is prized above all. Recalling an encounter at a party with a fellow who claims the younger George Bush is Hitler's equal in infamy but who finds hilarity in The Daily Show, Peter says, "And I thought -- if you were in Germany in the 1930s, would you watch a show where some smartass made fun of Hitler? Little-mustache jokes while he's throwing Jews in the ovens? I mean, if you really think George Bush is evil, then how can you laugh at 'George Bush is dumb' jokes?" Worrying about a pop culture that depends on interest groups talking only to themselves, he wonders about "the community," which he defines as "people who may not be like you but that you still have something in common with. A basic humanity. Even if they do believe in God or believe in the war in Iraq. Go to the Indiana State Fair -- those are the people we need to figure out how to talk to." You can argue that Dying City was the first play to grasp out current sociopolitical stalemate.

But for all its painstaking construction, Dying City remains a static piece of work, a collection of details that don't add up to a persuasive portrait of a family -- or a country -- rent by a pervasive spiritual sickness. This is in part because of the glaringly artificial twin-brothers device; Shinn spends half the play making up reasons for Peter to slip offstage so that the actor Colin Woodell can swap out shirts and characters. Some plot points don't fully make sense: Peter arrives with a set of emails sent by Craig from Iraq, which he urges on the reluctant Kelly. But the first page that she picks up contains a bombshell revelation that Craig is desperate for her not to see. An eleventh-hour report about the state of Craig and Kelly's marriage leaves one feeling that Shinn is manipulating his characters to fit his thesis. At the very least, if Kelly didn't suspect some of what we learn, she must be a pretty lousy therapist.

Still, under the author's direction, this three-way psychological deadlock is far more engaging than previously. A cloud of depression hung over MacDonald's production, its snail's pace reflected in the imperceptibly slow-moving turntable designed by Anthony Ward. Here, at least, there is drama in the sight of Woodell's Peter trying to find a way past the formidable defenses of Mary Elizabeth Winstead's Kelly. Winstead gives the character a nifty way of saying the socially correct thing, all the while subtly signaling that she doesn't believe it, knows you don't believe it, and, furthermore, doesn't expect you to believe it. It's a brilliantly artificial technique and I'd love to see her in a play by Harold Pinter. She also deftly handles the character's more distraught moments, especially when she realizes Peter believes she shares his hawkish attitude about the war. She makes a great deal out of a speech about her newfound fondness for the Law and Order franchise on television, and when the time comes to uncork her long-held-back fury, it is terrible to behold. Woodell creates two wildly distinct characters, thoroughly nailing Peter's conflicting impulses (people-pleasing versus a veiled hostility); Craig isn't as vividly written -- he comes off as a bit of a sphinx until some awful truths are rolled out near the end -- but the actor gives him a brusque manner and a hair-trigger temper that plausibly hint at deeper problems.

There's a pleasing simplicity to the design, beginning with Dane Laffrey's sleek, emptied-out-apartment setting and Tyler Micoleau's moody use of sidelight. Kaye Voyce's costumes efficiently keep track of the characters and time frames, and Bray Poor's sound design includes some abstract atmospheric effects along with several bits from television shows.

A great deal of good work results in a tricky, tantalizing, yet not really successful piece. Individually, many plot points feel trenchant; collectively, they feel contrived; it doesn't help that we only see the Kelly - Peter relationship in extremis, leaving one wondering what they ever saw in each other. Shinn writes elegant dialogue, but here, as is sometimes true in his work, the play's dramatic motor is allowed to run down; despite some probing observations and a clear-eyed view of a society gone wrong, Dying City ends in something of a dying fall. --David Barbour

(7 June 2019)

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