Tug of War


In a recent interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, Lee Woodruff, wife of Bob Woodruff, described “traumatic brain injury” as “the signature wound of this war.” Certainly, the characters in Christopher Shinn’s Dying City all suffer that malady, though their head injuries tend toward the psychological rather than the physical, and only one of them has ever seen action in Iraq. A year after the death of soldier Craig (apparently a battlefield accident), his widow, Kelly, and his identical twin, Peter, meet to rip the scabs off barely healed hurts, and perhaps inflict a few more. The action shifts between their late-night encounter and Craig’s last evening at home, some 18 months before.

Christopher Shinn’s plays, Where Do We Live and On the Mountain among them,
explore how people connect, or fail to. Dying City focuses on the latter, addressing the corrosion of relationships between husband and wife, brother and sister-in-law. Deterioration of the twins’ relationship would also doubtless feature, were those twins not played by the same actor, Pablo Schreiber, rendering their mutual presence onstage somewhat tricky. At times, the play can seem cruel: No attempt at amity goes unspoiled, no illusion unshattered, no love inviolate. Ostensibly, Shinn wishes to explore how even those reluctant to approve of war will happily engage in violence on the homefront. This notion doesn’t exactly track. Peter’s position on the war is ambivalent and the harm he causes is more feckless than malicious. Kelly—more clearly anti-war—is, like many women in Shinn’s plays, victim rather than aggressor. Craig literally gets his head blown off, but Kelly, figuratively suffers the same.

Speaking to the Brooklyn Rail last month, Shinn acknowledged that American critics tend to rate his plays on purely psychological terms, ignoring broader political implications. Guilty as charged, but not without reason. Though apparently reluctant to admit it, Shinn has a talent not for plays of ideas, but for nicely observed portraits. While convincing in his interviews and essays, onstage Shinn’s social notions too often come across as forced or merely silly. In this play, Craig and Peter discuss their lower-middle-class, middle-American background, but these comments never seem organic to the play, or particularly illuminating. Kelly can discuss her more privileged upbringing all she likes, but we learn much more about her when Peter shares a revealing fantasy and she responds, “You take sugar, right? I only have whole milk.”

Anthony Ward’s set, a spare platform dotted with a television and sofa, revolves almost imperceptibly, making one full rotation during the 90-minute playing time. The performances it supports aren’t quite so subtle, but they’re admirably restrained and nuanced. To play Craig and Peter, Schreiber doesn’t don any wigs or spectacles; he barely changes costume. He makes his muscled gawkiness serve for each brother, differentiating them with modest changes in his carriage and the rhythms and tones of his speech. Though she only plays one character, Rebecca Brooksher has perhaps the more difficult role. Her hair bound in a high ponytail, Kelly checks her emotions for nearly all the play, yet never makes a show of her self-possession. When she finally lets that reserve slip, attacking her husband with fierce—if feeble—punches, her despair is terrifying.

In that scene, the audience may understand—even if Shinn disagrees—that this play is about power; how we gain it, hoard it, use it to wound one another. Though the play’s title comes from an e-mail Craig writes, describing how “the city is dying and we are the ones killing it,” it isn’t the death of Fallujah or Basra thatDying City describes, but the failing of a few hearts and minds. The war in Iraq may provide the backdrop, yet the play’s concerns are local, domestic, internal even.