Monday, March 05, 2007

PLAY: "Dying City"

Photo: Sara Krulwich

The biggest problem with Dying City is that Sara Krulwich's lovely photo on the left captures more of the essence of the play than Christopher Shinn's forced passivity. It also means that Dying City, even at an intermissionless 90 minutes, is too long. The text that pads out the show is good, natural writing -- even charming at first -- but the heart of things between Peter and Kelly is all that really matters. The only thing worthwhile about Kelly's life as a therapist is the humorous nickname they give one of her clients ("Fucked Her So Hard She"). The only noteworthy thing about Peter's boyfriends is that he cheats on them; the only solid fact about him is that he's tried to suppress his childhood memories of his father, a Vietnam veteran. The contrived introduction of Peter's twin brother, Craig (whose scenes are set in a differently lit 2004, as opposed to the play's present of 2005), would be fine if Pablo Schrieber (who plays both roles) added a different sheen to each, or if Shinn didn't spend so much of the present recounting moments already written into the flashbacks.

There's also a problem with the gimmicky staging: James Macdonald did a wonderful job with A Number because he left things alone. He seems bored with Dying City, and it shows in his wobbly, imperceptibly rotating wooden plank of a stage. Granted, the Mitzi E. Newhouse theater is in the round, but having the perspectives in constant flux draws attention away from the action and cheapens the audience's attempt to get a grip on a play that's already elusive in theme. The earth is already subtly spinning; must the stage do the same?

Subtlety and subtext are often mistaken for the acts of a brilliant playwright, but they are more generally the signs of an absent conflict. From the moment Peter buzzes Kelly out of the blue-- Kelly, who is in the middle of moving--it's obvious that she doesn't want him there. And yet she continues to let him bully his way into the detritus of her emotional past with Craig; her emotional outburst at the end is as well-deserved as it is absurd. A therapist who can't communicate? That's worth exploring far more than a soldier who mistreats women, or an actor who doesn't know how to live his own life.

Shinn knows how to write, but Dying City feels like he's groping in the dark for a light. In the play, the title is immediately referring to Iraq, but that's too distant a theme in the play. John Stewart plays on TV in the background, and although Craig and Kelly argue about the war, they're not really arguing about the war. We're left to infer that the city dying is our own, the one gripped by isolation and loneliness, and an inability to communicate. Well, at least the play succeeds at doing just that.

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