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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.
The action (to use a generous term) takes place in 2004 and 2005 in the barely furnished New York City apartment of Kelly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane, FX’s Fargo, here making her stage debut). She is a therapist and the widow of Craig (Colin Woodell), who died during his first tour of duty. One night, she gets a surprise visit from her late husband’s twin brother Peter (Woodell, again), whom she hasn’t seen in a year despite his repeated attempts to make contact since the funeral. Peter, an actor, tells her he’s just walked out during a performance of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, after a fellow actor taunted him with a gay slur onstage.
The play jumps backward and forward in time, with the two brothers played by the same actor. Not only does this make the switches from past to present confusing, but it feels gimmicky. There’s no reason for the brothers to be identical twins save for the opportunity it provides Kelly to be seen interacting with one person embodying two very different characters — Craig, a Harvard graduate, is an intellectual, while the self-absorbed Peter doesn’t come across as the brightest bulb.
Events are mostly talked about rather than dramatized, often referred to so subtly and fleetingly that they barely make an impression. Elliptical conversations reveal that, while growing up, Peter and Craig suffered emotional trauma at the hands of their father (naturally echoed by Peter appearing in O’Neill’s tortured family drama). They also imply that Kelly and Craig’s marriage may have been foundering before he went off to war.
Adding to the stilted quality of the proceedings are the awkward Peter-to-Craig transitions: Peter walks offstage, often to take a phone call, followed by a blackout. Then the frame surrounding the playing area briefly blazes with light as Craig appears.
This lifeless revival sadly demonstrates the truism that playwrights often are not the best choice to direct their own work. The 2007 Lincoln Center production at least featured an imaginative staging by James Macdonald that included a set that rotated ever so slowly, keeping the audience off-balance.
Shinn (who took on directing duties after Lila Neugebauer dropped out to work on her first feature) applies no such theatrical effects in this snail-paced staging. Instead, he relies solely on the writing and the performances for dramatic impact, and the results are stultifying. The play’s contrived mechanics, which include Kelly reading damning emails sent by Craig to his brother, stick out like sore thumbs.
While Winstead delivers a sensitive turn as the grieving widow plagued by demons, her lack of theatrical experience becomes apparent in her too-low-key stage presence. Woodell fares better in his flashier role(s), though he doesn’t do enough to fully delineate the two characters. But the evening’s lack of emotional impact is not so much the fault of the actors as of the play, which inexplicably became a 2008 Pulitzer Prize finalist. By the time its brief but seemingly endless running time is over, all we feel is impatience and frustration.
Venue: Tony Kiser Theater, New York
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Colin Woodell
Director-playwright: Christopher Shinn
Set designer: Dane Laffrey
Costume designer: Kaye Voyce
Lighting designer: Tyler Micoleau
Sound designer: Bray Poor
Presented by Second Stage Theater
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