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Shinn Examines Loss in 'Dying City'

Shinn Examines Loss in 'Dying City'

Trying to make sense of what is left behind envelops "Dying City," Christopher Shinn's remarkable tale of loss and how two very different people handle their grief.
The play, which opened Sunday at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is personal, intimate even, yet its themes could not be more all-encompassing and its emotional impact more affecting.
A search for truth stands at the center of "Dying City," as a young widow attempts to come to terms with the death of her husband Craig, an American soldier in Iraq. How did he die? A year after she last saw him, that question, among others, haunts her.
Not only her, but Peter, her dead husband's identical twin brother who appears unexpectedly one night at the woman's New York doorstep. The twin, an actor, has a drama all his own: He just walked out _ midperformance _ on Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night."
What Shinn has done is skillfully construct a two-tiered drama with a double-dose of theatricality. He alternates scenes in which the woman, a therapist named Kelly, talks to her emotional brother-in-law (he's just broken up with his boyfriend) and scenes of Kelly spending her final night with Craig before he leaves for active duty.
Pablo Schreiber portrays both brothers, and he does an extraordinary job. It's another coup for this young actor who last year scored a Tony nomination for his performance in the Broadway revival of Clifford Odets' "Awaken and Sing!"
His gay actor is goodhearted yet impulsive despite his desire to do the right thing. It's a trait the character shares with his brother who throughout their childhood served as a buffer between his sibling and their volatile father and resentful mother.
Schreiber is well-matched by a lovely Rebecca Brooksher who captures the uncertainty of the woman's feelings about her absent husband. The therapist's emotional fragility has been anesthetized partly by her immersion into television, watching all the various versions of "Law & Order" and Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show."
Shinn, author of such fine plays as "Four" and "Where Do We Live," write spare, often elliptical dialogue, and he's not afraid of silences on stage. What's left unsaid is often more powerful anyway.
James Macdonald's direction is unobtrusive on Anthony Ward's turntable living-room set, a Spartan environment that complete a 360-degree rotation during the drama's 90 minutes of playing time.
"Dying City" dissects family life, and it is a family scarred by war. The young couple was marked by the devastation of Sept. 11, which is referred to several times in the play. And the brothers' father served in Vietnam, an experience that later affected the man's conduct toward his wife and two sons.
Then the specter of Iraq looms over the play, most poignantly in Craig's e-mails home about his experiences in Baghdad. Disillusionment has set in for this once dutiful champion of the war.
"It is clear to everyone now that we are not equipped to bring this country back to life," he writes before his death. "The city is dying and we are the ones killing it."
In this subtle and revealing play, Shinn is able to take the political and humanize it _ transforming the stuff of daily news stories into a devastating statement on the unforeseen and often hidden consequences of war.