Dying City

In a New York apartment with half-filled boxes scattered around her, a young woman is surprised by a buzz at the door. A year after her husband’s death, his twin brother Peter arrives out of the blue. We quickly learn that the deceased man, Craig, had enlisted some time before; we are expected to understand that he died in service. This is the style of exposition in this psychological take on post-9/11: a slow leak of information that is at times confusing and yet, at other times, didactic – at least in terms of writer Christopher Shinn’s views on the Iraq War.

It seems that Kelly, the young widow, is ready to move on from her husband’s death, but Peter’s arrival is about to open a load of old wounds that will change both of their lives, not necessarily for the better.

It seems that Kelly, the young widow, is ready to move on from her husband’s death, but Peter’s arrival is about to open a load of old wounds that will change both of their lives, not necessarily for the better. This, too, is the strength of the work; it is this element that makes this play, first performed in 2006, worth re-visiting today as huge questions loom over the Middle East.

This is a tough piece to pull off, not least because what is not said is as poignant and powerful as what is; the essential pauses and tense body language between the players need perfect timing and poise. Added to this is the challenge for the male actor who doubles as Craig, the twin, who appears in flashback. Nicholas Masters-Waage quickly and convincingly establishes the character of Peter, a relatively well-known gay actor who has just walked out of a play and arrived unannounced at Kelly’s with printouts of emails that his brother sent while on duty in Iraq.

Hannah Jackson as Kelly also plays a very convincing American. She successfully conveys the conflict between curiosity about the emails and wanting to get on with her life without the unpleasant memories that lurk beneath the surface. After the first scene, Masters-Waage returns to play Craig. Unfortunately, there isn’t quite enough distinction between his portrayal of each twin, nor the change in atmosphere necessary to tell us immediately we are in a flashback. But Shinn is playing with his audience, and the slow unravelling of information is as painful for us as it is for Kelly and Peter.

This pain comes across well, and both actors work well with and against each other; we are left wondering who Kelly truly loves, or loved. This may be the point, but it makes for confusing exposition. The scene-changes are handled well and the direction is free of fussy effect, although they could have used the playing space more fully from time to time: hugging the upstage area created a distance between the audience that could have been exploited.

This play is less about the politics of war and more about the effect it has on individuals and (to an extent) the place they live in. We can feel the characters’ pain even if we can’t empathise with the post-traumatic stress disorder which is the real issue here, whether caused by war, personal politics or dysfunctional relationships. As Kelly says early in the play, watching endless CSI repeats on television helps her to come to terms with Craig’s death, since we all have a fantasy that people want to be remembered, even if through the investigation of their death. As an investigation of complex emotions, this is a memorable performance.

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The Blurb

M13 Theatre present Christopher Shinn's Dying City, in its first UK revival. Kelly has lost her husband, Craig, fighting in the Iraq War. A year later, she is still dealing with her grief. One evening Peter, Craig's identical twin, shows up unexpectedly, bearing information which up until now had been left buried under the weight of their grief. Dying City asks what happens when people and events apparently thousands of miles away affect the heart and soul of a city.