Big stories in the news — events like 9/11 and the Iraq War — have been the focus of many plays and films during the past several years. They are points of reference in Dying City, a 2007 play by Christopher Shinn that portrays the effects of such world-changing events in the context of a small but powerful personal drama. New Stage Collective is giving the play its local premiere, the first work by Shinn presented on a Cincinnati stage. His provocative script and this strong production will warm up the January theater scene.
Dying City opens in 2005 in a stark Manhattan apartment. Kelly (Julianna Bloodgood) is packing books in boxes, absent-mindedly watching reruns of Law and Order. It’s clear she’s emotionally distant and disconnected. She appears to be — and is — on the verge of moving. An unexpected guest appears, her brother-in-law Peter (Rob Jansen), whom she hasn’t seen since the funeral of her husband Craig, Peter’s identical twin, who died under suspicious circumstances in Iraq.
Kelly is a freshly minted therapist, but she’s having a tough time analyzing her own plight, and Peter, a gay actor, claims his visit is to re-connect with her. But it’s evident he’s working on his own set of issues. In fact, he’s currently performing as Edward Tyrone, the tortured younger brother in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. (Interesting factoid: Jansen just played this role last spring at Cincinnati Shakespeare, where he’s a company member.) It’s evident that Kelly is not glad to see Peter, but we only gradually understand why. Shinn has a way with awkward, disjointed dialogue, and Kelly and Peter’s conversation dances around the central issue of coming to terms with Craig’s death, although it’s obviously a topic they can’t avoid.
Jansen also portrays the tightly wound Craig, who’s both literate (he has a master’s degree in literature from Harvard, where he wrote a thesis about Faulkner) and emotionally distant, in scenes we witness from a year earlier, on the eve of his departure for military service. Jansen intriguingly conveys the common genetics of the twins while also distinguishing the characters: Peter has a kind of guileless naiveté that he uses to manipulate others, while Craig’s forceful but repressed nature is more likely to impose his will through emotional force.
There are fumbling attempts to come to terms with what has happened; it’s clear that both Peter and Kelly need to reconcile or at least explain Craig’s death. But it dawns on Kelly that life is not like the Law and Order series she watches compulsively: “I realized that all of these shows, all the Law and Orders and the rip-offs, have the same exact structure: someone dies, and a whole team of specialists springs up to figure out how to solve the mystery of the person’s death.” But there’s no clear-cut answers or solutions in this play, and Kelly cannot get past her final emotional encounters with Craig.
Even more maddening is that Craig, Peter and Kelly reconstruct events that differ, diverge and conflict. There is conversation about “purposefully misremembered” stories and perspectives regarding events that one character recalls in one way, while another either cannot remember them at all or has interpreted them in a wholly different manner. The analogies between their personal stories and the events of a war that was justified with lies and half-truths are part of this play’s cleverly subtle construction.
Director Drew Fracher keeps his actors in a low-key, restrained and naturalistic mode that is more riveting than overt conflict. Even when emotion is required, it comes in quick bursts and then feelings are quickly deadened. Bloodgood sustains this distance throughout; Jansen’s Craig is constantly throttling down a sense of fury.
In a series of e-mails Peter has sent to Craig prior to his death, he expressed his doubts about the war — which becomes a metaphor for his disturbed life. “It is clear to everyone now that we are not equipped to bring this country back to life. The city is dying, and we are the ones killing it.” Kelly understands that this is not only a description of Craig’s life in Baghdad; it is also what has happened to them in Manhattan.
New Stage has an excellent record of bringing powerful and provocative new scripts to Cincinnati audiences — earlier this season with Conor McPherson’s Shining City and in past seasons with Tracy Letts’ Bug and Edward Albee’s The Goat. Fracher adds Dying City to that array of memorable productions, and Bloodgood and Jansen offer performances that will linger in audience’s memories.
DYING CITY, presented by New Stage Collective, continues through Jan. 25. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.