Review of Dying City at Second Stage Theater

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    June 6, 2019
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    An extra-large couch fittingly occupies center stage in the 75-minute therapy session that is Christopher Shinn’s Dying City at Second Stage Theater's Tony Kiser Theater. The playwright comes loaded for bear and bearing a load of hurt in this chatty drama that was a 2008 Pulitzer Prize finalist. The list of damages include a marital crisis, PTSD, sexual aggression, sexual repression, self-loathing, father-loathing, substance abuse, workplace abuse and several flavors of guilt. And while New York is hosting the largest gay pride celebration in the world this month, Shinn’s characters apparently did not get the memo. Homosexuality here is a burden to carry, or a secret to bury, or worse.

    That sofa, and the apartment in which it sits, belongs to Kelly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who, not to put too fine of a point on it, is a professional therapist. She, herself, is a bit of a mess with her husband Craig (Colin Woodell) having died in Iraq and Craig’s twin brother, Peter (Woodell again, with different hair), there to stir up dilemmas, both old and new. The play toggles back and forth between the eve of Craig heading to basic training, in January 2004, and a night in July, 2005, when Peter comes to visit his brother’s widow. Along the way we chronicle Peter’s problems as a gay actor, including some hard to believe harassment from his on-stage father in a production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. And we learn the truth of how Craig, an ostensibly straight and faithful husband, actually met his fate.

    Though primarily laugh-free and contemporary, Shinn borrows a technique from Victorian drawing room comedies in that much of the play’s news is not witnessed by the audience, but rather borne by word-of mouth and letters, or in this case, printouts of emails from Craig, which Peter conveniently carries around with him. We hear so much about Peter’s partner, Tim, and his role as a catalyst between the two brothers, it seems a sin not to have him represented on stage. Similarly, the boys’ father, a Vietnam vet who returned from the war a different man, cries out to be a visible presence.

    While I’m making unmakeable wishes, here are two more. First, to have back the production’s original director, the excellent Lila Neugebauer (The Waverly Gallery, The Wolves, and many more), who dropped out when she scored a film project involving Jennifer Lawrence. Shinn took over the duties and does an admirable job of serving up his own words. But it is a loss not having another sensibility in the mix, especially when it comes to Winstead’s Kelly, who too often seems a stuck-in-place vessel for the men’s misery. And second, though Woodell does excellent vocal and physical work in handling the dual roles, individual actors handling the parts would have made for a more satisfying evening. Shinn’s gimmickry works against him in this staging as he finds forced ways for Peter to exit and Craig to appear, as does the on-the-nose metaphor of a good and an evil twin being one and the same, even if it is not always clear which brother has sustained the most damage and which has caused it.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "Watching this dry and sturdy revival — directed by Mr. Shinn and starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Colin Woodell — I felt more as if I were rereading a play I admired than actually experiencing it."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "Christopher Shinn’s 2007 drama Dying City compresses huge issues—class and political divides, the nature of truth, the impact of chronic violence—into an intimate three-character power play."
    Raven Snook for Time Out New York

    "What actor can resist the challenge of playing twins, one good and one bad? It’s the kind of acting stunt that Golden Age film stars liked to perform to prove their acting chops. Christopher Shinn’s 2006 play Dying City offers a similar theatrical treat, one that’s slightly touchier to pull off in an era where the LGBTQIA umbrella now has more letters than a Times Square subway station. Dying City features the same actor playing the gay Craig, an actor currently starring in a Broadway revival of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, as well as his straight twin Peter, a soldier being redeployed to action in the Iraq War. In other words, let the mannerisms fly."
    Robert Hofler for The Wrap

    "Is it possible for a play to be too subtle and too heavy-handed at the same time? Second Stage Theater's revival of Christopher Shinn's 2006 drama Dying City suggests it can. The work features emotionally charged confrontations between a young woman and two men — her husband who was killed in the Iraq War and his twin brother — yet stifling silences, long pauses and tedious exposition so effectively shroud its dramatic arc that the evening leaves you wondering what points the playwright was trying to make."
    Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter