Friday, November 9, 2007

Shinn City

Jennifer Blood and Chris Thorn in Dying City.

In Dying City (through this weekend at the Lyric Stage), playwright Christopher Shinn has big issues on his mind, but limits himself to small dramatic means. He seems to want to treat the Iraq War within the structure of a chamber drama - or something more like a cryptogram - and he's hit on a nifty little device to (almost) get him there: he conjures a pair of identical twins, one gay, one straight, one opposed to the war, the other fighting it, and, unsurprisingly, one alive and one dead. Shinn then allows their two identities - so alike and yet so different - to reflect and refract each other in a series of interactions with the soon-to-be-grieving-widow (and, perforce, the distant sister-in-law). The playwright's carefully-worded minimalism keeps you guessing as to the true nature of the actions and relations you're observing; but alas, as whatever "truths" he has to offer come clear, we feel not the frightening open vistas of, say, Pinter or Beckett, but instead a kind of reductive relativism. Whaddya know - deep inside, the two brothers are really just the same. In fact, they're like - wait for it - twins.

To be fair, if the destination proves unsurprising, the 90-minute journey there is often absorbing, although perhaps more as detective work than artistic experience. Shinn offers little in the way of dramatic frame as he wiggles between time frames, repeatedly sending one twin (Chris Thorn) offstage to return as the other, while wife/sister-in-law Kelly (Jennifer Blood) throws on or drops a sweater. (But why not just do the time tunnel thang in the middle of a scene? Now that would be interesting!) But as the play progresses, we begin to see these gambits for what they are: a distraction from some rather shaky dramatic premises. Shinn seems to want to dodge any explicit politics, while drawing psychological parallels between America's pro- and anti-war factions. His solution to this quandary is to source the brothers' neuroses in the bogeyman of a sadistic Vietnam-vet dad, which only made me grit my teeth at his reliance on cliche. We finally unlock the puzzle box, only to find Rambo inside? Say it ain't so!

But alas, it is. And it doesn't help, really, that Shinn's characters are either tongue-tied or almost too articulate for their own good (even if this does describe quite a few twenty- and thirty-somethings I know). It's not that this trio almost channels the New Yorker when analyzing their own tastes - it's that their lines drop so many lit-bombs (pardon the pun), as when Kelly explains her attraction to autopsy shows like CSI by musing that they signify "the mystery of a death can be solved and therefore symbolically reversed." Uh-huh. Thud. This kind of dialogue is roughly the aural equivalent of the thematic shoe Shinn drops via the set design - about two-thirds of the way through the play, the back wall of Kelly's apartment becomes eerily translucent, revealing - yes, wreckage. As in Iraqi wreckage - or maybe 9/11 wreckage - or, of course - emotional wreckage. Quick, cue "Everybody Hurts." (In New York, the stage actually revolved, just so we could "get" that Shinn was giving us every side of the argument.)

Only somehow I think the folks dodging the bombs in Baghdad might take offense at the implied equivalence of their plight with that of two upscale New Yorkers in an empty loft. (I kept hoping some little kid with no arms might pick his way out of that wreckage to watch "Law and Order" with Kelly, but no luck!) Rest assured, I admire the Lyric for taking on this play (in recent years they've bracketed their "Man of LaMancha" crowd-pleasers with the kind of risky work you'd think you'd see at the Huntington or ART); that's one reason I held this review for so long. (But once a show has closed, can't the "real" reviews begin?) Likewise, I can't fault any writer for tackling the Iraq War, so in a way I applaud Christopher Shinn. But something about his solution seems profoundly wrong - essentially, he's denaturing the conflict of its specifics and then re-configuring it as a kind of enigmatic soap opera.

Or at least that's what the Lyric production does. I'm usually a big fan of director Daniel Gidron, but here he plays things too safe by half; not nearly enough is at stake for Kelly (a rather anemic Jennifer Blood) until well into the play, and while Chris Thorn does quite a good job subtly differentiating both sides of Shinn's gay/straight coin, in the end he doesn't suggest much of the darkness behind either face. But then theatre folk may simply be jumping the gun with the Iraq War; generally it takes time for a culture to digest its own folly - and the Iraq War is a very big folly, far greater than Vietnam. It will take years for its repercussions to work their way through the culture - unless of course, President Bush gets his way, and the war goes on forever, and we never work our way through it.

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