Suddenly breaking out of an otherwise superficial conversation, a man releases a cry of frustration sparked by a fellow actor’s aggressive, taunting homophobia. Generally when a play presents a controversial issue in such an abrupt, problematic way, it expands on that problem a bit: It offers solutions, related issues, etc. In this sense, “Dying City” rather departs from the norm.
In its New York premiere production at the Lincoln Center Theater, Christopher Shinn’s play centers around the death of Craig (Pablo Schreiber), an American soldier and closet misogynist, in Iraq. It follows his therapist wife (Rebecca Brooksher) and gay twin brother Peter (also Schreiber) as they try to understand Craig and the circumstances surrounding his death. Under the wide umbrella of this premise, the author slips in issues concerning homophobia, the legitimacy of the war, and love, among others. It sounds like something heart-warming and innocuous, but it is only the latter.
There are moments when City succeeds. Though its several plot twists often feel like material exhumed from the cemetery of forgotten popular fiction, they are effective enough to shock the audience into wakefulness.
But after leaving the theater, the audience inevitably feels that this somewhat compelling play conveyed nothing. The author, it seems, thought of some things that were bothering him and, unable to focus on any particular idea, decided to hurl them all together. The result is the more subtle, dramatic equivalent of a man ranting in a bar: He’s entertaining while he’s standing on a stool, flinging anti-government profanity at the walls around him, but his speech has more shock value than substance. When he walks out of the bar, no one remembers what he said.
Shinn seems to be somewhat aware of this problem; he occasionally introduces a literary reference to suggest that he has created a legitimate work. While reading an e-mail he received from Craig shortly before the soldier’s death, Peter calls it “Faulknerian,” suggesting, it seems, that Shinn saw his work as inspired by or in some way comparable with “The Sound and the Fury.” Any audience member not intimidated by Shinn’s allusions will quickly recognize the utter absence of connection between Shinn’s writing and Faulkner’s.
As the play’s psychological punching bag, Brooksher is, at times, not simply bad, but embarrassingly so. When she tries to convey extreme grief, her voice acquires the contralto notes of a B-movie undead. She appears to be incapable of expressing sadness without becoming excessive and melodramatic; it seems she would be better suited to soap opera than the stage. Her face during the last scene, frozen in the imitation of no emotion ever felt by a human being, epitomizes her performance.
Schreiber fares better, though at times as Peter his breathy, mumbled words are incomprehensible. He is successful as both characters, polishing each with subtle gestures and habits — for example, Peter’s tendency to smile meekly and spasmodically when faced with something painful. His physical mannerisms become noticeably different when he changes character; it is easy to forget, at times, that there is not a third actor.
The set would be fine, but for the poor technical decision to rotate the stage at a barely perceptible rate during the entire performance. The first time the audience notices that a couch has rotated 30 degrees is surprising, but, from that moment, the audience spends about half of its attention trying to guess the rate at which the set is moving. This unintelligible addition may have some profound symbolic importance, but given the shallow script, that seems unlikely. Instead, it serves only to confuse and distract the audience.
While “Dying City” struggles in many ways, it is entertaining, if not impressive. It would have been somewhat improved if Schreiber had played three parts rather than two. They may have also done well to modify Shinn’s script by focusing it on fewer issues and examining them in more depth, keeping it from being relegated to the graveyard of mediocre 21st-century literature.