Review: Doubling Up on Toxic Manhood in ‘Dying City’06/04/2019
Anyone who saw Christopher Shinn’s “Dying City” at Lincoln Center 12 years ago most likely left the theater on wobbly legs. As staged by the inventive British director James Macdonald, this three-character, two-performer drama about an American war widow in the early 21st century slyly transformed the terra firma of a conventional, well-made play into quicksand.
“Now how did they do that?” I remember thinking afterward. Of course, I sort of knew, consciously, how my sympathies had been enlisted and then turned inside out.
That slowly rotating stage, which literally and imperceptibly kept altering the audience’s viewpoint, helped, as did the stealthy and increasingly sinister performance by Pablo Schreiber, as a pair of identical twins. But by the end, like the young woman portrayed by the newcomer Rebecca Brooksher, I felt that I’d been good and truly gas-lighted, to devastating effect.
No similar currents of disorientation tugged at me during the revival of “Dying City,” which opened on Monday night at Second Stage Theater. Watching this dry and sturdy revival — directed by Mr. Shinn and starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Colin Woodell — I felt more as if I were rereading a play I admired than actually experiencing it.
Mind you, this isn’t one of those revivals that make you feel you must have been hoodwinked (or drunk) the first time around. It must be said that Mr. Shinn’s production — as is perhaps appropriate to a dramatist’s staging his own work — allows you to perceive with new clarity the canny structure and thematic depth of “Dying City,” which was a deserving finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.
This means that you may find yourself nodding your head appreciatively as certain points register, with clean clicks of revelation. You are far less likely to shiver, or gasp, or tear up.
In description, the play’s setup sounds hokey, like that of a black-and-white movie thriller with an Oscar-courting star in two roles. Kelly (Ms. Winstead, in her stage debut), a Manhattan therapist, receives an unexpected visit one night from Peter (Mr. Woodell), an actor and the identical twin brother of her husband, Craig, who was killed in the Iraq war.
Mr. Woodell portrays Craig, too, in flashback sequences that find the actor exchanging a drapey T-shirt for plaid flannel. On occasion, he even plays both brothers in the same scene. And it is to Mr. Woodell’s credit that you, like Kelly, can always tell them apart.
Peter is the unstable one, an egotistical actor who cheats on his boyfriends, walks out on a performance mid-play and drinks himself into a stupor. Craig, whom Kelly met at Harvard, was working on a dissertation in American literature when, as a reservist, he was recruited to fight in Iraq after 9-11. He would seem to be a man of honor and substance.
But the more you learn about the brothers — and particularly about their Midwestern childhood — the more you sense affinities between them that wouldn’t be obvious at first. It develops, by stealthy degrees (warning: spoilers ahead), that they are both cut from a similar, deceptively silky cloth of misogyny and sadism.
Whether gay or straight, actor or soldier, these brothers carry a shared legacy of poisonous masculinity. Their dad was a Vietnam vet, it turns out, and prone to scary eruptions of violence, which their mom seemed to be almost proud of. Peter and Craig have learned how to torment — women, in particular — without raising a fist, or a rifle.
The marvel of “Dying City” is how fluidly and subtly it traces the prevalence of this toxic sensibility through so many levels of culture and politics, from the backstage of a theater to the arena of war; from the marriage bed to the back seat of a car on a family drive. Mr. Shinn carefully stacks up the evidence via seemingly casual reminiscences; an explosive collection of emails Craig sent to Peter from Iraq; even the writers, all male, that Craig was exploring for his doctoral studies.
What adds to the unease here is that much of what we learn comes directly from Peter, an artist of passive aggression. How much of what he says is really true, and how much has been devised purely to mess with Kelly’s understandably confused mind?
There was a component of melodrama in the 2007 production of “Dying City,” which flirted with the archetypes of menacing (male) villain and vulnerable (female) prey. Mr. Shinn’s staging tones down that dichotomy, as do the performances.
Largely known for their screen work, Mr. Woodell and Ms. Winstead register as comfortable and natural on stage. Then again, this a play about discomfort and unnatural acts.
As the narcissistic Peter, Mr. Woodell seems more like an annoyance than a threat. (His relatively opaque Craig is the creepier of the two.) And Ms. Winstead seems too centered, too self-reliant to be unhinged by either of these brothers. You do not fear for the nightmares of her future.
The same matter-of-factness extends to the production as a whole, starting with Dane Laffrey’s naturalistic set (which has the virtue of actually looking, for once, like a genuine New York starter apartment). Granted, it does have that ominous black hole where the wall should be at stage right, a place for ghosts to materialize. And Tyler Micoleau’s lighting and Bray Poor’s sound do have their insinuatingly sinister aspects.
Ultimately, though, this “Dying City” feels less like a haunting than an exorcism. Mr. Shinn’s play remains of topical urgency, speaking eloquently to the abiding traps and dangers of American manhood. But you register its points intellectually and dryly, when what you really want — and need — is to be chilled to the bone.
Tickets Through June 30 at the Tony Kiser Theater, Manhattan; 212-246-4422, 2st.com. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
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Ben Brantley has been the co-chief theater critic since 1996, filing reviews regularly from London as well as New York. Before joining The Times in 1993, he was a staff writer for the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.
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