In this two-hander about two people in mourning in post-9/11 New York, why do the stakes feel disconcertingly low?
Roland Barthes wrote about the concepts of studium and punctum in his book Camera Lucida. Studium refers to everything surrounding a piece that allows for its varied interpretations including socialization, politics, language, etc. Punctum is the thing that bonds you to it, pierces you and creates an inextricable, mind-body connection between you and the piece itself. Barthes was referring to these effects in photography, but so much art can be read in this way, theatre included. In 2019, despite the ever-present tragedy in our collective consciousness, we cannot deny that our temporal distance from 9/11 and the beginning of the Iraq war has tempered the immediacy, the punctum, of this piece despite having studium in abundance. It is horrifying to imagine that we have become increasingly desensitized to the presence of domestic terrorism in our country and in our headlines, but in order to cope with the frequency, we have. This might explain, in part, why the play was a Pulitzer finalist in 2008 but feels prosaic today.
In Christopher Shinn’s Dying City, Kelly is unexpectedly visited by Peter, the identical twin brother of her late husband, Craig. Over the course of an evening, they recall memories of Craig and speculate about his death and the way they left their relationship with him and with each other. Peter wants to reconnect with Kelly, seeking solace from someone who can sympathize with him a year after his brother’s death. Even though Craig’s death affected both of them deeply, Peter has little regard for Kelly’s feelings and decides that he deserves her emotional labor in exchange for his honesty. He forces his way back into Kelly’s life looking for absolution and places the burden of his trauma on her doorstep. At the end of the evening, however, we discover that both Kelly and Peter’s grief is bound to the idea that Craig’s death cannot be explained by an impersonal act of violence that happened in indeterminate time and space, a distant casualty of war. They discover it is deeply personal, and despite being the two people closest to Craig, neither of them saw it coming. Punctum.
Trying to weave together the disparate parts of Kelly and Peter and Craig’s history becomes a more interesting task than what Shinn actually gives us in his play. It is structured as a long, expository armchair confessional directed primarily at Kelly, interspersed with flashbacks of the ways in which her life was shaped by the approval and desires of her husband. It’s a difficult sell, and Dying City’s reappearance in New York since its premiere in 2007 at Lincoln Center Theater continues to struggle on stage.
This production—directed by the playwright—opens with a chore. Well, less of a chore and more like an acting exercise. The one you do in a beginners acting class where you have a few minutes to take the stage do something ordinary, like read a book or fold laundry. The challenge as an actor is to overcome the feeling of being watched and relax into this performed version of yourself, ideally without additional artifice. The exercise is deceptively difficult, as Mary Elizabeth Winstead has no doubt realized while playing Kelly. Watching Winstead pack books into a box as if she has never held a book before or tried to put one, let alone many, into said box is as uncomfortable to watch as it probably is for her to do. Her apparent discomfort extends into other behaviors like sitting on the sofa or walking across the room. And this is before any dialogue begins.
I trust that Winstead empathizes with Kelly and believes the things she says when she says them, but when her energy appears to be directed towards an extreme close-up from a non-existent camera rather than the nearly 300 people sitting in the Tony Kiser Theatre, the legibility of her performance suffers. Even against Colin Woodell’s consistent, if a little heavy-handed, performance as both Peter and his brother Craig, any urgency that Kelly experiences evaporates in the chasm between her face and the first row. Considering that Dying City is her stage debut, I hope Winstead continues to improve as she takes on more theatre projects in the future.
Authenticity to the time period is not always the most crucial aspect of a production, but the distinct mid-2000s setting is important to the plot, especially in terms of its material technologies—the printed emails, the absence of a landline, phone books. It seems like a slight detail, but if a character mentions using TiVo all the time and then uses her TiVo while on stage, I want to see that box layered underneath her DVD player and the nostalgic boop-boop when she selects the latest episode of Law and Order from her Now Playing list. The trendy, midcentury-inspired sofa, complete with embroidered and tasseled throw pillows feels oddly contemporary and dissonant against the massive CRT television downstage.
It might not be fair to call Dying City a relic when we’re only a little over a decade out from the year it was written, but it is a testament to the way the world and its engagement with art about the present moment continues to change at a rate much more rapid than we can ever anticipate. Who could have known we would be here then?