Based on a great deal of experience and theatergoing, I used to believe that playwrights should not direct their own plays the first time around as a second pair of eyes and ears are needed in the creation of new work. However, if a playwright does not have a visual sense, then he or she should probably not direct a play even in revival once it is finished and published. These thoughts arose while watching Christopher Shinn’s revival of his own Dying City, presented by The Second Stage, with television and film stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Colin Woodell. To his defense, Shinn was not the original director announced but took over just before rehearsals began. But assuming that the issue is not with the text of this 2008 Pulitzer Prize finalist first seen at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in the spring of 2007, then the problems are with the production.
Set in both 2005 (the play’s present) and 2004 in flashbacks, Dying City may have been more pertinent that much closer to the Iraq War and the 9/11 tragedy. Kelly Connor, a Manhattan therapist and a war widow whose husband Craig died in mysterious circumstances in Iraq, gets an unexpected visit from Peter, her husband’s twin brother, a year and one week after Craig’s death. Peter has been attempting to reach Kelly to talk about his brother since the funeral but she has changed her phone numbers and has not answered his letter.
Everything we learn about Peter leads us to believe that he can be trouble: a rising film star, he has just walked out during the intermission in a Broadway production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night as the younger of two Tyrone sons, has broken up with his longtime lover Tim the night before even though he was betraying him with his ex-lover Adam, and his showing up unexpectedly gives Kelly uncomfortable memories of how she was advised of her husband’s death – which he knew.
In flashbacks we see the night before Craig left from this same apartment when Peter passed out after having a farewell dinner with Kelly, Craig and his lover Tim. The gimmick of the play is that Peter and Craig are played by the same actor: every time Peter goes into the bedroom to answer a phone call in the present, Craig appears on the night before he left. From what we see of Craig, he and Peter are cut from the same cloth, though Peter is gay and Craig was straight. Both were extremely manipulative, abusive to their lovers and prone to emotional violence. The play’s contention is that these traits have been inherited.
The clue is Peter’s appearing in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night as one of the two sons of James Tyrone. Like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Tyrone has attempted to destroy both of his sons with his false values. In the case of the Connor twins, it is their father, a Vietnam War veteran who returned with a great deal of pent-up violence and anger. He took his sons hunting when they were six, was prone to sudden bursts of violence, and they witnessed his abusing their mother in various ways. It is this toxic masculinity that has led Craig to Iraq and Peter to betray the people he claims to love most. Which of the two men is more pernicious will be up to the viewer.
Under Shinn’s direction, Winstead making her stage debut is very low-key, almost as an observer in her own story. True she works as a therapist, one who tries not to reveal her personal feelings to her patients, but in her private life she ought to show more emotion given the provocations. In the original production directed by James Macdonald, Pablo Schreiber as both Peter and Craig was devastating, leaving the audience almost quaking in their shoes. Here Woodell is almost indistinguishable as the twin brothers, thorough dressed in an olive green t-shirt as Peter and a button-down striped flannel shirt as Craig so that we have no trouble keeping them apart. The revelations come periodically but the play and the production seem under heated. It also seems to be too dependent on emails and phone calls, rather than dramatizing the story.
Dane Laffrey’s setting is somewhat disconcerting for the wrong reasons: an almost empty New York apartment, even though Kelly has been making a good salary as a therapist while Craig was still working on his doctoral dissertation and not yet teaching. However, one side of the stage is shrouded in black material but it is not used for anything except one of Craig’s entrances before leaving for Fort Benning. One keeps expecting some sort of reveal that never comes. Kaye Voyce’s nondescript costumes tell us little or nothing about the three characters. The time shifts are created by blackouts and then a white frame of light appears around the stage in Tyler Micoleau’s distracting lighting design.
The Second Stage revival of Christopher Shinn’s Dying City is a disappointment, one of a play that seemed more important the first time around and now seems somewhat diminished. Part of this is the actors’ inexperience of stage time. The other is a production that has made poor choices in telling its story. The theme of toxic masculinity in America is one that has remained topical but the play’s slow pace without any dramatic tension waters down its effectiveness.
Dying City (through June 30, 2019)
Second Stage Theater
Tony Kiser Theater, 307 W. 43rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-246-4422 or visit http://www.2st.com
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission