Dying City: Theater Review

Dying City - H 2013
Christopher Shinn
Belated local premiere of heralded playwright memorably performed.

The Pulitzer Prize finalist about an Iraq War widow finally gets a premiere at L.A.’s Rogue Machine Theater.

In a Lower Manhattan apartment in July 2005, a woman packing at night for a move -- professional therapist Kelly (Laurie Okin) -- is surprised by the doorbell. Reluctantly, she lets in the unexpected caller, Peter (Burt Grinstead), who has obviously been trying to connect with her for some time. Quite gradually, it is revealed that Kelly is the Iraq War widow of Peter’s twin brother, Craig (also Grinstead), a reserve officer recalled to service from his Ph.D studies in Faulkner. Peter, a gay actor of nascent success, has just fled the theater where he is playing Eugene O’Neill’s Edmund, after enduring an eviscerating slur from the star of the show.

The action shifts back and forth to January 2004, as Kelly remembers the last night she spent with her late husband before his final deployment. Grinstead, as a result, must frequently quick-change between the identical but contrasting brothers.

Originally produced at the Royal Court Theatre, London, and then in 2007 at Lincoln Center, Christopher Shinn’s Dying City, a Pulitzer Prize finalist (bested by August: Osage County) is finally enjoying its local premiere at Rogue Machine in mid-city Los Angeles, a theater that had been working to secure the rights since the play's inception.

Despite these bona fides, and its weighty themes -- conflicted masculinities, mass social denial and the deeply personal components of the political -- the passage of years has blunted some of the immediacy and provocation of Shinn’s drama and argument.

This is one of those plays in which all the crucial narrative action occurs offstage, which lends a distancing tone to the exposition, but leaves the piece structured as a puzzle in which the author imparts information by deliberate leaks, creating a mystery of misdirection that can only be understood as the meaningful clues are chosen to be shared. There’s undeniable suspense to this method, but while it may not quite rise to the manipulative, it is also inescapable that our perceptions are being parsimoniously controlled.

There’s an interesting dimension to this dramaturgical technique in that it closely mirrors the way the two male characters interact with Kelly, as they each manage to inflict hurt first by withholding facts and feelings from her and then, ironically, do further damage by needing to share those facts and feelings. In a haunting twist, we learn from Kelly’s memories of the past that she herself keeps secret crucial knowledge that she chooses never to reveal to Peter. The men spill the beans, leaving them irretrievably alone, and the woman, who keeps her counsel, nevertheless ends up in the same existential condition.

Shinn writes determinedly oblique dialogue that doesn’t remotely sound like actual conversation, yet it does create a charged space in which piercing vulnerabilities and delicate intimacies can be suggested and exchanged, of which this admirably realized production partakes copiously. The alert and sensitive direction of Michael Peretzian finds not only a multitude of privileged moments but renders fluid much of the bumpiness inherent in the stunt double-casting.

Grinstead differentiates his dual roles cleanly, and more importantly, maintains the essential concentration to stay intently in each nuanced moment. Okin foregoes a wider vocabulary of body gesture to limn a transparency of highly subtle yet specific emotions and thoughts, maintaining a specific clarity of expression with an economy of revelation. She reads onstage with considerable complexity without indicative exertion. These are challenging roles, not least because of the rhetorical difficulties Shinn strews throughout in elucidating his well considered if willfully asserted points.

Venue: Rogue Machine Theatre, Mid-City Los Angeles (runs through July 8)

Cast: Laurie Okin, Burt Grinstead

Director: Michael Peretzian

Playwright: Christopher Shinn

Set designer: Tom Buderwitz

Lighting designer: Leigh Allen    

Sound designer: Christopher Moscatiello

Costume designer: Dianne K. Graebner

Producers: John Perrin Flynn, Elina de Santos, Laura Hill