David Roberts, Chief New York Critic, Outer Critics Circle/Drama Desk Member
New York, NY - With renewed concerns about an escalation of conflict in Iraq and the possibility of a new war initiative there, one would tend to believe that the revival of Christopher Shinn’s “Dying City,” currently playing at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater, would provide new insights into the earlier Iraq War and its effects on the soldiers who served here and on their families at home. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Under the playwright’s direction, the cumbersome play raises more questions than it answers and leaves the inquiring audience member desperately flipping through The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to sort out the dysfunction displayed on stage.
In the early scenes of Christopher Shinn’s “Dying City,” one is led to believe that the physical and emotional detritus scattered across Kelly’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) Manhattan apartment results from the scars left by the death of her husband Craig (Colin Woodell) in Iraq, the Iraq war itself, and the lingering shadows of the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11. However, at the plays end, one becomes aware that Kelly’s plan to flee her apartment has more to do with uncovered secrets about her husband – living and dead – and about his gay twin brother Peter (also played by Colin Woodell) who appears on the anniversary of Craig’s death at her apartment door unannounced and unprepared to handle Kelly’s less than warm welcome.
During the initial stages of Peter’s visit, it is uncertain why Kelly might have been so averse to responding to the letter Peter sent after Craig’s funeral. After all, apparently, they were close while Craig was alive. However, as the play progresses, Peter’s motivation for wanting to reconnect with Kelly becomes clearer, more sinister, and deeply disturbing. Peter makes a deliberate choice to move to Manhattan and seek work as an actor there. That choice involves being closer to Kelly and, as he reveals in his unanswered letter, to ask her “to have a baby.” Is there any doubt Kelly would start packing?
Throughout the play, there are flashbacks that reveal more about Kelly’s relationship with her husband Craig before his death in Iraq. These flashbacks also reveal more about Craig and his lack of self-worth, his misogyny, and the real reason for his untimely death. To say more about any of these issues would require spoiler alerts. It is enough to know that both Craig and Peter exhibit the symptoms of a narcissistic personality disorder and are dangerous young men. Witness Peter’s insistence on sharing his brother’s email to Kelly, emails that reveal Craig’s infidelity and toxic self-absorption.
Although Christopher Shinn’s characters are well developed and their conflicts believable enough, the plot developed by those “problems” is not as believable and suffers from a lack of pathos, ethos, and logos. It is difficult to care for characters who fail to care for themselves or for one another, behave in ways that connect to reality only tangentially, and make choices that defy logic. Mr. Shinn’s turn as director lacks the ability to elicit strong performances from the two relatively inexperienced actors. Colin Woodell fares better than Mary Elizabeth Winstead who is making her theatre debut with this performance.
It is difficult to understand fully why Second Stage chose to reprise this flawed drama that fails on every count to provide a satisfying dramatic arc that results in a much-needed catharsis.
The Cast of “Dying City” features Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Colin Woodell.
The creative team of “Dying City” includes Diane Laffrey (scenic design), Kaye Voyce (costume design), Tyler Micoleau (lighting design), and Bray Poor (sound design). Laura Smith serves as production stage manager.
“Dying City” runs at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater (305 West 43rd Street at 8th Avenue) through Sunday June 30, 2019. For further information, including performance schedule and ticket purchase, visit https://2st.com/. Running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes without intermission.
Photo: Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Colin Woodell in “Dying City.” Credit: Joan Marcus.