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Christopher Shinn is one of America’s best-known playwrights—but only in England, where his plays are seen regularly. They get done over here with passable frequency, but not nearly as often as they deserve, and it’s been more than a decade since Mr. Shinn last had a high-profile New York production. That was Lincoln Center Theater’s 2007 off-Broadway staging of “Dying City,” which had received its premiere the previous year at London’s Royal Court Theatre and went on to be a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama….
For all these reasons, it is extraordinarily good news that Second Stage Theatre is giving “Dying City” its first New York revival, in a production of high merit that has been directed by Mr. Shinn himself. I regret to say that I missed “Dying City” the first time around, but now that I’ve finally seen it, I’m stunned: It’s one of the finest new American plays to open in this century, a deeply serious drama of overwhelming emotional impact.
In truth, “Dying City” isn’t really all that “difficult,” at least not in the way that the plays of a writer like Harold Pinter continue to present real problems of understanding, but it can be hard to follow unless you pay close attention. This is because it’s a two-actor, three-character show in which the male actor (Colin Woodell) plays identical twins. If that sounds like a gimmick, rest assured that it’s not. The device is central to the underlying meaning of the play, for the two brothers, though they look alike, are as different as it’s possible to be. Peter, whom we meet first, is a glib, self-obsessed movie star who is taking time off from Hollywood to appear in a Broadway revival of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Craig is—or, rather, was—a soldier who is sent to Iraq and dies there under mysterious circumstances. As for Kelly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), his grieving widow, she’s a therapist who cannot accept Craig’s death, in part because their marriage was already on the rocks when he shipped out to Baghdad….
“Dying City” is set in January 2004 and July 2005, in the midst of Gulf War II. Yet it’s neither about the war nor about Peter’s homosexuality, or anything else remotely so reductive. Unlike the issue-driven message plays that have come to dominate contemporary American theater and whose meaning can be “solved” as neatly and uninterestingly as a mathematical equation, Mr. Shinn has instead told us a tale of how the world invades the private lives of ordinary people and makes them suffer, and how they come to terms—or don’t—with that suffering….
* * *Read the whole thing here.
The trailer for Dying City:
A featurette about the 2012 Washington-area premiere of Dying City, presented by Signature Theatre: