nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 21, 2007
Christopher Shinn's new play Dying City is about a young woman named Kelly and her relationships with a pair of identical twins, Craig and Peter. Peter is gay, an actor who is just beginning a lucrative film career and has returned east to appear in a revival of Long Day's Journey Into Night (presumably on Broadway). Craig, whom we meet in flashbacks that are interspersed among the present-day scenes, is Kelly's husband, a writer who was ROTC at Harvard and has been called back to duty in Iraq. Not long after Craig left for the war, he was killed (possibly committed suicide). Kelly hasn't seen Peter since Craig's funeral, a year before. Peter wants to bond with Kelly, despite her obvious reticence/reluctance. He's brought a packet of emails that Craig sent him from Iraq that he wants Kelly to read. And he wants to follow up on a proposal involving having a baby, something he suggested to her in a letter that she never replied to.
The "dying city" of the play's title is Baghdad, evoked very briefly but eloquently in one of Craig's emails. Craig started out gung-ho in favor of the war (thought Kelly and perhaps also Peter have always opposed it). The emails reveal, among other things, that Craig came to believe that the American invasion was wrong—the city has died, it seems, because America has killed it.
Shinn, here and throughout his play, wants to make Dying City bigger than the convoluted triangle that is Kelly, Craig, and Peter's story. Social commentary, some of it quite astute and well-articulated, keeps cropping up: Peter wonders why people are satisfied to watch Jon Stewart make fun of President Bush on The Daily Show rather than actually do something to change the status quo; Kelly constantly reminds both Craig and Peter than her patients (she's a therapist) are human beings, not two-dimensional caricatures that can be reduced to flippant Seinfeldian labels.
But the connections between the playwright's socio-political agenda and the mawkish and unconvincing story he's chosen to tell never get made. Shinn plots in so many specific details (see my first paragraph) that we lose track of what's supposed to matter in the play: Do the various characters' attitudes pro/con the war in Iraq signify something? Does the brothers' implied promiscuity signify something? Does Peter want Kelly to have his child? Long Day's Journey is vaguely echoed in abusive parental relationships for all three characters—is that important? At the end of this muddled 80-minute play, I wasn't sure what to make of all the information I'd received. I certainly didn't believe in the humanity of anybody on stage.
As it stands, Dying City is probably well-intended but irrevocably flawed. This is a very clunky play. Peter and Craig are portrayed by the same actor (Pablo Schreiber), and Shinn has a lot of trouble finding smooth transitions from one to the other. Instead, we watch Schreiber repeatedly utter lines like "May I use your bathroom" or "I need to take this call," exit, and then return seconds later as the other brother. (Kudos to the dresser(s) who help Schreiber accomplish his massively quick offstage changes.) Kelly's role, meanwhile, is severely underwritten—we never know why she fell in love with Craig in the first place, or why she tolerated his bad behavior, or why she lets Peter back into her life. Rebecca Brooksher, a recent Julliard graduate, is at sea in the part, channeling a variety of actresses (I saw traces of Kathleen Turner, Jessica Lange, and Cate Blanchet, to name just three) to help her navigate her uncertain way through the play.
And am I the only one who immediately thought of Lanford Wilson's Burn This once the basic premise was articulated (in Wilson's play, a gay brother dies of AIDS and his female roommate's life is turned upside-down when his straight brother shows up unannounced...pretty similar idea, no?)
The set, by Anthony Ward, is the most distinguished element of the production; it subtly revolves during the performance, lending a gravitas to the proceedings that the script tries but fails to support. The set also includes a working television on which are played episodes of Law & Order and The Daily Show. Cool stuff.
If Dying City were well-constructed, or if it effectively articulated something interesting or meaningful about the way we live now, then I wouldn't be so hard on it. But it isn't, and it doesn't; my afternoon at Lincoln Center felt pretty much wasted as a result.