Dying City: A Squirmy Drama About Twins, Iraq, and a War Widow
Short-listed for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in drama, Christopher Shinn's Dying City is a time-traveling exploration of how we create meaning in the wake of death. Shinn's explorers are a pair of contemporary city-dwellers united by loss: Kelly, a widowed psychotherapist, and Peter, her self-absorbed brother-in-law and her deceased husband's identical twin. Reunited for one night in New York City, Kelly and Peter grapple with the death of the man who brought them together: Craig, a tough, complicated fellow—her husband, his twin—was killed a year earlier while serving in Iraq. Scenes of Kelly and Peter's night of reckoning are interspersed with flashbacks from the night prior to Craig's deployment—a clever trick (one actor plays both brothers) that electrifies the play, as the audience is supplied with ever-twistier information about the man being mourned.
Director John Vreeke brings Shinn's rich and gritty Dying City to life, but gets off to a bumpy start; judging from the first scene, I feared we were in for a night of forced naturalism, laborious blocking, and characters who talk like playwriting majors. Thankfully, Vreeke cast a pair of actors capable of grounding Shinn's tricky script in reality: Shana Bestock (who moonlights as Seattle Public Theater's artistic director) and Chris Maslen, a pair of seasoned performers who soon settle into their roles and rack up a collection of golden moments by the play's end. Maslen's handling of the twins is particularly impressive, as he sidesteps any and all Parent Trap–isms to create two distinct but related characters.
Also lifting Dying City above the average regional-theater production is David Hahn's sound design, the majority of which is devoted to Metallica. The band's pummeling riffs frame every scene and provide an ingenious audio stand-in for the war that is the play's uncredited fourth character. Props to Seattle Public Theater for living up to its name with a good production of a tough-minded war play that'll give folks of all political stripes reason to squirm.