By Brian Scott Lipton
How well do you – can you –really know another person? In his acclaimed 2006 play, “Dying City,” Christopher Shinn peels back the layers of two metaphorical onions to reveal the bitter core of a New York City’s therapist’s relationship with a pair of identical twin brothers: her husband, Craig, a writer who is suddenly recruited to take part in the war against Iraq in early 2004, and Peter, a seemingly nice, handsome gay actor in the midst of early fame. It’s not the kind of play that makes one feel good about the state of human nature, and this new production at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theatre – directed by the playwright – does little to soften its blows.
There’s an edge to the proceedings from its opening moments, when Kelly (a sympathetic Mary Elizabeth Winstead) – who seems to be in the midst of either packing or unpacking her spacious yet spare apartment (the diorama-like set is by Dane Laffrey) – hesitates answering her buzzer, and then hesitates even more once she discovers it’s Peter (Colin Woodell, effectively portraying both siblings) on the other end.
While she eventually lets him in and treats him with kindness, there’s an awkwardness to their encounter. She hasn’t spoken to him since Craig’s funeral over a year ago – Craig supposedly accidentally shot himself while overseas — and it’s hard to believe she’s completely sincere in offering her initial excuse: that she “hasn’t gotten around to it.” You almost instantly know there are other reasons she’s been avoiding this man, some of which Shinn teases out through a series of flashbacks to what happened the night before Craig left for Iraq.
Meanwhile, Peter’s surprise visit comes with its own less-than-believable explanation: he simply walked off-stage during the intermission of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (a rather too-symbolic choice) after supposedly being insulted by his co-star, and ran over to see Kelly (whom he tracked down although she has conveniently disconnected all her phones.) He’s clearly desperate to see her, possibly just anxious to re-connect with a beloved if estranged family member, but his actions seem a little drastic.
Unsurprisingly it’s not long until we discover that motivations for seeing his sister-in-law are far more muddled; some unfeeling, some manipulative, some even vaguely sinister. (Oddly enough, “Dying City” is yet another play on the boards right now, along with “Burn This” and “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” when a man refuses to leave a single woman’s apartment after being begged to do so.) Moreover, for all their superficial differences, Craig and Peter truly turn out to be two halves of the same rotten egg.
The biggest problems with “Dying City,” however, is not the characters, which are well-drawn and well-played by Winstead and Woodell. It’s that Shinn has overstuffed the 80-minute play. Aside from the many personal issues at hand, we get political arguments about the righteousness of the Iraq war and the honesty of the Bush administrations (points that resonate with contemporary relevance), along with conversation about the emotional dangers of gay promiscuity (Shinn himself is gay), the after-effects on New Yorkers of 9/11, the effectiveness of psychotherapy and psychotherapeutic drugs, and how childhood abuse (emotional and physical) seemingly determines how we end up as adults.
Each subject is not only worthy of discussion; each could be the basis for its own play. There are simply too many ingredients here, not just the metaphoric onion, to come up with a truly satisfying dish. In the end, “Dying City” simultaneously tastes both over-seasoned and under-baked.
Dying City plays at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater (305 West 43rd Street) through June 30. Visit www.2st.com or call 212-246-4422 for tickets.