"Dying City" at Hartford Stage

By Tom Nissley

Christopher Schinn’s "Dying City," currently playing at Hartford Stage, is both a clever conceit and a disturbing play.

The cleverness involves two twin brothers and two time periods, with one actor playing both of the twins, and another actor responding to each of them - in flashbacks for one, in the present for the other. The conceit presents a challenge for the audience and a brilliant opportunity for two actors to become three - in some ways, four. In terms of technique and craft, the production is a great success, and a very interesting piece of theatre.

So what’s disturbing? Plenty. To start with, "Dying City" is one of those plays which a reviewer could ruin by telling too much about the plot. It’s got surprises, revealed at points along the way, and too much information could make those surprises not surprise you. I’ll have more to say about too much information in a minute.

Here’s what I can tell you. The two twins, Peter and Craig [Ryan King], come from the midwest, and their mother wanted them to be able to ‘get away from there.’ Craig did that by going to Harvard to study literature. Peter did it by becoming an actor. Craig dated and then married Kelly [Diane Davis], who is a psychotherapist. Then he went off to war, and died from a gunshot wound. The funeral was a year ago. Peter came looking for her as the play opens.

Early in the opening scenes we are introduced to dialogue about several persons who may have been Kelly’s clients - one in particular - and the first disturbing moment for me was the idea that not only her husband but also her brother-in-law seems to have known enough about this client to mock him freely. That could only happen if Kelly talked a lot about private sessions with clients. It’s a clever way to inject material into a script, but not comforting if you have worked with a therapist.

Peter is a gay man, and his descriptions of his own social intercourse are rather blunt. He is partnered with a man named Tim, but (and?) has other ‘buddies.’ He has been wounded by another actor confronting his sexual activity, and there might be a hint in the script that Craig is not comfortable, or was not comfortable, with Peter’s open door policy either. It is not unknown for twins, or one twin, to be gay - statistically speaking. It is also not unknown for straight men to have outside interests - beyond monogamy - and that is one of the themes that Mr. Schinn has included in ‘Dying City.’ Craig and Peter have, of course, overlapping similar crises - twins stuff - father stuff - mother stuff - relationships...

But Peter’s lax boundaries are not helped by the writing, which does not bother with metaphors when he’s describing who and how he’s been with some contact. So we’re back to dealing with too much information. Maxwell Williams has directed "Dying City" handsomely, but he has allowed the blunt language to be tossed freely into the wind. If he and Mr. King had collaborated on ways to say words and phrases differently, there would be a stronger production. As it is, the excellent physical theatre, and the abrupt changes of time, place, and personas, make it very worth the effort to experience. Ms. Davis and Mr. King give superb performances and the set and lighting and sound and costumes are all exciting.

"Dying City" plays through February 8. Tickets and Information are at www.hartfordstage.org To learn about the other disturbing portions of this significant play, you’ve got to be there!

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports

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