Christopher Shinn’s “Dying City,” which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Drama after it received an admired production at Lincoln Center in 2007, is being revived Off-Broadway at Second Stages at the same time that there is a Broadway production of Lanford Wilson’s older play “Burn This,” which it resembles in several ways. Both focus on a kind of unconventional love triangle involving two brothers. In both plays, one of the brothers is gay, and one of the brothers is dead. (The gay brother is the dead one in “Burn This”; the gay one is the one still living in “Dying City.”) Both also explore the effects of a death on the people left behind. But “Dying City” has a more ambitious and more stealth agenda – to bring us into a world not just of grief but of trauma.
What they also have in common is that neither revival quite works for me, for what feel like opposite reasons. “Burn This” works too hard at being showy. “Dying City” doesn’t work hard enough.
At the beginning of “Dying City,” Peter (Colin Woodell) shows up unannounced at Kelly’s New York apartment one night in July, 2005. We soon learn that Kelly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is the widow of Peter’s brother Craig, that Craig died a year earlier while serving in the military in the Iraq War, and that Kelly had promised to keep in touch with Peter, but they haven’t seen each other since the funeral. They never even talk; she got rid of her phone.
After a blackout, a frame of flashing light, and an ominous crackling sound, the next scene takes place 18 months earlier, and Kelly is now in the same apartment with Craig, her husband – who, as it turns out, is Peter’s identical twin. (This gives Colin Woodell the opportunity to portray both characters) It is the night that Craig is shipping off for military duty.
The play switches back and forth between these two nights. But even as the characters’ backgrounds are fleshed out through exposition, the mysteries deepen. How did Craig die? Why is Kelly so cool to Peter? Why are all the conversations between Craig and Kelly, and between Peter and Kelly, so awkward, elliptical, strained? All three are educated, after all, and all three work in hyper-verbal professions – Craig and Kelly are graduates of Harvard, Kelly a therapist, Craig a PhD candidate in English literature, finishing a thesis on Faulkner. Peter is an actor, taking a break from a movie career to perform in New York in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
Shinn’s script is subtle and indirect, suggesting all sorts of underlying themes. There are topical references to Abu Ghraib and 9/11 that seem to be trying to establish a connection between the intimate trauma of the three characters and…American trauma. (Craig refers to Baghdad as a dying city, but it’s hard not to see the title could also encompass New York.) Those allusions to Eugene O’Neill and Faulkner are surely meant as clues as well.
Eventually — and that word may raise some alarms for a play that’s only 90 minutes long — a picture emerges of dysfunction. There is some indication of a violent upbringing, and a history of sexual recklessness, and what these days is called toxic masculinity, which leads us more or less to understand the complex web of trauma at play, which began long before Craig’s death.
But the interaction is generally so low-key, the pace so slow, and the revelations so fleeting, that something feels missing; maybe what’s missing can be called drama. This has not been a problem in other productions I’ve seen of Shinn’s plays, especially his first, “Four.” Perhaps a better director might have drawn out more compelling non-verbal interaction from the actors, both of whom are familiar faces on screen, but have little to no experience on stage. A good director could have delineated the characters more crisply, and enlivened the pace, allowing what’s happening on stage both to fill in for the ellipses in the script and compensate for the patience that’s required of the audience while the story unfolds.
A very good director, Lila Neugebauer, dropped out of “Dying City” shortly before rehearsals began, in order to direct her first film. Chris Shinn decided to direct the play himself, his first directing gig in 15 years.
Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater
Written and directed by Christopher Shinn
Scenic design by Dane Lafrey, costume design by Kye Voyce, lighting design by tyler Micoleau, sound design by bray Poor
Cast Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kelly, Colin Woodell as Peter and Craig.
Running time: 90 minutes no intermission
Tickets: $59 to $125. Students $25. Rush via Today Tix $32
Dying City is scheduled to run through June 30, 2019