June 8, 2019

This "Dying City" is Truly Lifeless

The first question I ask whenever I see or even hear about a revival is “why are they doing this show?” The answer to that is right in its name for Second Stage Theater. For although it may now be best known as the incubator for such shows as Dear Evan Hansen and Next to Normal, the company's longstanding mission has been to give a second staging, a second chance, to works created by contemporary American playwrights. So it makes sense that it would give such a chance to Christopher Shinn’s Dying City, which hasn’t had a major production in New York since it debuted at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre in 2007 and became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Alas, the revival that opened at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser space this week makes you wonder what the Pulitzer nominators were thinking.

The play is a two-hander but it has three characters.  It starts with a man named Peter hitting a buzzer relentlessly to be let into the apartment of a woman named Kelly, who is clearly reluctant to let him in. But it’s not what you think. It turns out that Peter is a successful gay actor and the identical twin of Kelly’s husband Craig who died in Iraq a year earlier. Brother-in-law and sister-in-law haven’t seen one another since the funeral. 

As Dying City shuttles between the night before Craig left for his deployment and the later encounter between the two people closest to him, relationships are examined and secrets revealed. Shinn clearly intends the play to be a meditation on grief and trauma but he also wants to ruminate on the differences between fraternal and spousal love, the definitions of what it means to be a man and, in a nod to a major issue of the day, what constitutes a just war.

I suspect it’s the latter that appealed to those Pulitzer adjudicators. But while its question is timeless, the treatment here makes Dying City seem dated. And some of its dramaturgy is clunky too. Peter keeps going into a different room to answer or make phone calls that have no effect on the narrative except to get him on and offstage when the playwright needs him to. And a deus ex machina concerning some emails makes no sense at all

Still, one might forgive all of that if the relationships between the characters seemed immediate and the performances made them seem genuine. But neither is the case in this production.

The play calls for a single actor to play the brothers in alternating scenes. With the aid of some telegraphing hair and costume changes—a T shirt for Peter, a flannel shirt for Craig—Colin Woodell, whose screen credits outnumber his stage credits in the Playbill, does a good job distinguishing between the brothers but he doesn’t dig deep into what motivates either sibling.

That’s even more of a problem for Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a TV actress making her theater debut in a tough role that is almost all subtext. For Kelly, a psychologist by profession, is intent on keeping her true emotions to, and maybe even from, herself. So it’s right for the character to be opaque but the actor playing her shouldn’t be.

Both actors might have fared better if the originally scheduled director Lila Neugebauer had stayed with the production. But when Neugebauer, a master at guiding actors through difficult plays, left, reportedly to begin working on a movie, Shinn took over the directing duties himself (click here to read more about that).

Having a playwright direct his own work is rarely a recipe for success. By nature, most writers have more of an affinity for the words they’ve created than for the actions needed to bring those words to life onstage. Shinn’s direction is plodding, making the show’s running time seem far longer than its 90 minutes.

Even the design elements are flat-footed. The apartment Dane Laffrey designed for Kelly is OK but I’m still trying to figure out what the black void that took up so much of stage left was supposed to signify. Meanwhile lighting designer Tyler Micoleau displayed no subtlety when it came to indicating the constant time changes.

But I’m going to stop now because I get no satisfaction out of beating up on a production, particularly one that’s already as wobbly-kneed as this one is. So I’ll just end by saying I wish it had been able to make better use of its second chance. 

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