By Geary Danihy
Like a pretentious name-dropper, Christopher Shinn’s Dying City, which recently opened at Hartford Stage, references all the hot topics – the war in Iraq, terrorism, 9/11 and torture, to name just a few – as it tells the story of a rather odd ménage à trois, the relationship between Kelly (Diane Davis), her husband Craig (Ryan King), a casualty of the Iraq war, and his twin brother, Peter, also played by King. In the process there’s a lot of sound and fury but what it signifies is open to debate.
Set in Kelly’s Manhattan apartment, stylishly designed by Wilson Chin with a canted, multi-paned mirror as a backdrop that visually emphasizes the idea of “doubling” that is central to the play, the slowly evolving drama opens with Kelly packing away her dead husband’s books when the twin brother drops by unannounced. It is immediately apparent that their relationship is strained, but as the play unfolds and King shifts between brothers (a doubling that really doesn’t work, since King is unable to generate significant character differences to distinguish the two), the nature of the tension becomes no clearer.
If you cut to the quick in most dramas you will find one character wanting something and another character attempting to thwart that wanting. The central problem with Dying City is that it is never clear exactly what Kelly wants, nor is it clear why (and exactly how) Peter is bedeviling her. There are e-mails from his dead brother that Peter has saved, and these he shares with Kelly near the end of the play. They are supposed to be revelatory, and the reading of them is the catalyst for a lot of histrionics from Kelly, but since the play’s premise is clouded their import is, at least for the audience, muted.
Then there’s the “sex” thing, which may be what all of this is about, but then again…In any event, Peter, an actor who has gone AWOL from a Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, (which features the ultimate dysfunctional family) because the actor playing the lead role has made a disparaging remark about Peter’s homosexuality, has a marked interest in a patient Kelly had been seeing, a man whose nickname describes his rather loutish treatment of women. This becomes important, sort of, as the relationship between Kelly and her husband, Craig, is revealed in a series of flashbacks. It appears Craig harbored similar tendencies. It also appears that Craig had some homophobic problems. Of course, there are allusions to an abusive father or two, but that’s almost de rigueur.
Since King plays both male roles, the doubling delivers the message that understanding sexual proclivities and hang-ups is not just a simple task of labeling. The heart, apparently, is a dark cave in which it is easy to get lost. Unfortunately, the play is also a dark cave and leaving a trail of breadcrumbs won’t help much.
Although Davis and King deliver emotionally charged performances, these emotions don’t translate to audience involvement. It may well be the nature of the material, but the antipathy between the two characters seems manufactured, setting up an invisible wall between what is occurring on stage and the audience, a wall that never tumbles. Hence, it is ironic that the program quotes a line from George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple: “The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that’s the essence of inhumanity.”
If Shaw is correct, then those attending a performance of Dying City come away hardened sinners.
Dying City runs through Sunday, Feb. 8. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to www.hartfordstage.org.
This review originally appeared in The Norwalk Citizen-News