While it might seem like overkill to set a play about war in a time when information on Iraq seems to strike from every angle, Dying City feels like just the opposite. It is a refreshing spin on a married couple dealing with the inevitability of the war, and not just the battles that take husband from wife, but the internal conflict raging in the core of their relationship.
Just as Craig watches Baghdad slowly die while he is stationed there, the audience is exposed to the slow decay of Craig and Kelly's relationship, revealed in fragmented scenes throughout the Daniel Gidron-directed play.
Dying City shines in its exploration of its three characters: Craig, who died in Iraq the previous January, his widow, Kelly, and Craig's identical twin, Peter. The scenes flash back between January 2004 when Craig is about to leave for training and July 2005, when Peter arrives on Kelly's doorstep unexpectedly. Chris Thorn portrays both brothers, with only a slight costume change and a dimming of lights indicating that a different brother is present.
Peter is a B-List actor performing in a production of Long Day's Journey Into Night whose string of boyfriends confused and frustrated his brother. The night he appears at Kelly's doorstep, it is revealed that his life is breaking down; he has just walked off-stage in the middle of the show. Chris Thorn does an excellent job of conveying Peter's consummate narcissism countered with his overwhelming desire to somehow push Kelly over the edge.
Thorn represents Peter's deceased twin, Craig, with alarmingly cold behavior and a tightly-wound temper that threatens to snap at any moment. Although they may have come from the same egg, they are very different people. The line between these two personalities is clearly defined, making it easy to differentiate between the two brothers.
Actress Jennifer Blood plays the fragile, obstinate therapist Kelly, who clings to the tatters of her marriage even as she prepares to move and severs all ties to her dead husband. She is completely convincing as a woman trying to hide herself from the past. The tension in her body is palpable and Blood's tight expressions aptly convey the distress inside.
Each one of the characters is disparately self-destructive-they are spiraling slowly, agonizingly out of control. It is the acute observation of this process, and the car-crash fascination with it that makes Dying City worth watching.
As details and information regarding Peter and Kelly's relationship are revealed, the couple is made witness to the deathly throes of a dysfunctional marriage; in one scene, Craig and Kelly discuss how, on Sept. 11 they sat staring at the destruction and decided, at that moment, to have a baby.
Playwright Christopher Shinn's casual tone and easy, natural rapport between the characters makes it startlingly real and easy to digest, as if the audience really is peering into the living room of a Manhattan apartment.
"The city is dying and we are the ones killing it," Craig says near the end of the play through an e-mail read by his brother Peter. The city itself is never specified, but screened behind the apartment wall is the wreckage of a shattered city, emphasizing that whether the dying city is meant to be Baghdad or New York, its influence is everywhere.
Dying City's political overtones serve more as a springboard for the self-inflicted downfall of first Craig, then Peter and, ultimately, Kelly. Shinn does not nag on the subject of the war, but instead uses it as a greater metaphor for the destructive power of lies.
"It's all about lying. It's about cruelty," said Gidron in a talk-back following the show. "The war has to do with that. But it's also that every one of these characters lies about something. And the way we got into the war was a lie too."
And thankfully, Dying City lives up to his promise, articulately tying the madness in Iraq to the chaos at home without alienating or exhausting the audience.
It does not try to moralize or convince, preach or persuade, but capitalizes on the fact that most of its audience has already been converted. He has used a couple's relationship as a metaphor for the war, and vice versa. The final effect is thrilling and unnerving, and absolutely necessary for audiences to see.
Dying City will be playing at the Lyric Stage Company through November 11.