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Dying City

Theatre Review by James Wilson - June 3, 2019

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Colin Woodell
Photo by Joan Marcus

The characters in Christopher Shinn's Dying City confront the traumas associated with the Iraq War, 9/11, and toxic homophobia. These are nothing, it appears, compared with the grievous wounds and penetrating scars inflicted by lovers and family members. Currently in a revival at Second Stage Off-Broadway, the play grapples with issues of bereavement, guilt, and the foolhardy attempts to find closure amidst the constant barrage of life's slings and arrows. It is fitting, then, that one of the main characters in Dying City, is presently appearing in a production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. As O'Neill's play also shows, the most devastating battles are not those fought on foreign lands, but those waged in one's own home.

Dying City begins with jarring sound of an apartment buzzer. (Bray Poor designed the sound, which also includes unnerving airplane rumbling and anxiety-producing street noise.) Peter (Colin Woodell) has dropped by unannounced to see Kelly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the widow of his twin brother, Craig (whom we meet in flashback, and who is also played by Woodell). Craig has been dead for just over a year, and while Kelly is trying to move on with her life, she clearly has not adequately dealt with her grief. Peter, on the other hand, is still looking for answers since he does not believe the account provided by the military about his brother's shooting death in Iraq.

Over the course of the evening and into the next morning, they try to make sense of Craig's demise (although Peter already seems to know what happened). In the process, Peter and Kelly rehash their difficult childhoods, rocky relationships, and ironic career choices. That is, Peter is an actor, but he is not always the best judge of character. Kelly is a therapist (though not an especially discreet one as there is a lot of conversation about one of her clients in particular), yet she tends to retreat from her emotions rather than deal with them. Craig was a Ph.D. candidate with a focus on William Faulkner, but he could not intellectualize away his own demons.

The play had its New York premiere at Lincoln Center in 2007 and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist the following year. In a production directed by James Macdonald and starring Rebecca Brooksher and Pablo Schreiber, Dying City was a disquieting and poignant character study of three damaged souls. The production benefitted from a stunning scenic effect (designed by Anthony Ward), which placed the action on a slowly revolving stage that was both disorienting and appropriate for the play's sudden shifts in time and perspective. By the end of the night, the play had come, as it were, full circle.

The current production, directed by Shinn and with a design team that includes Dane Laffrey (scenic design), Tyler Micoleau (lighting), and Kaye Voyce (costumes), applies a very different tactic. Set in a large rectangular cut-out, the playing space consists of a spare New York City apartment with half of the back wall constructed of black masking curtains. With solid white walls framing the inset stage and stark lighting (and an occasional neon flash to indicate change of time), the impression is like watching the play on an ultra-widescreen.

One would expect the choice to provide a focused, cinematic, and sharply delineated view of the characters' soul-baring and emotional skirmishes. Rather, the approach flattens the rising stakes and diminishes the simmering tension between the characters.

Woodell and Winstead both have affecting moments, but they do not yet fully inhabit the roles. (Woodell is perhaps more convincing as the hotheaded Craig than he is as the more passive-aggressive Peter.) As a result, the play seems gimmicky and formulaic in its revelations. Indeed, much of the drama's impact occurs in the subtext, and as fine as the two actors are in the play's powerful climax, the points of the interpersonal triangle are not sufficiently lacerating.

The challenge perhaps stems from Shinn's writing, which tends toward the expositional. There are numerous instances in which the characters prod backstories from one another by leading with, for example, "Do you remember?"

Dying City is a play shrouded in darkness and mystery. The title refers to war-ravaged Baghdad, and the ways in which soldiers futilely attempt to make meaning out of meaningless acts of violence. Unfortunately, the current production does not plumb the depths of life's inscrutability, relying instead on surface answers.

Dying City
Through June 30
Second Stage Theater's Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: