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Christopher Shinn's plays explore what victims do next

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NEW YORK — David Mamet has his hustlers, Edward Albee his domestic warriors, Tony Kushner his brilliant self-flagellators. If playwright Christopher Shinn has a signature character, it is the manipulative victim — the half-sympathetic, half-deplorable sort of person whose suffering is real but who uses it as rationale for bad behavior.

Most recently, Shinn explored this type of character in the Tyler Clementi-inspired tale of college bullying, "Teddy Ferrara," at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. And in his 2007 play "Dying City," now getting a West Coast premiere at Rogue Machine Theatre (opening night is May 18), Shinn conjured twin terrors: a pair of brothers, one a straight soldier shipping off to Iraq, the other a successful gay actor.

Both are played by the same performer (Burt Grinstead), and each exploits his interrelated damage in conscious and unconscious ways in relation to the soldier's wife (Laurie Okin).

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"We're living in a time where people think of themselves as victims, whether they're oppressed or the oppressor, whether they're doing violence or violence is being done to them," said Shinn, 38. "This is what compels me and keeps me going: I'm so sympathetic to the way trauma shapes people, but as a dramatist I'm also interested in questions of agency and responsibility."

If there is a larger character looming over "Dying City," it is the body politic that turned the attacks of 9/11 into the debacle of the Iraq war.

"Whether or not you think 9/11 was justified by certain policies of our country, we were definitely victims at that time; it was an extraordinary trauma," said Shinn, whose writing desk on New York's Lower East Side once had a view of the Twin Towers.

"I feel like that became the argument in the play: When people do things that are bad, are they bad or are they just traumatized?" he said. "As angry as I was and am about the war, it's hard for me to think too negatively about the people who made the decision."

A complicated, tragic view of human nature, conveyed with disarmingly naturalistic dialogue and situations, has characterized Shinn's work since he was an undergraduate at New York University, where Kushner was one of his mentors.

His plays have found acclaim in the U.S., but Shinn has had his greatest success in London, where the Royal Court Theatre has premiered of several of his plays, including "Dying City."

His only previous Southern California productions were in 2005: The drama "Four" appeared at the Celebration Theatre in L.A. that year, as did "On The Mountain" at South Coast Repertory.

But Shinn said he fondly recalls a 1999 Taper workshop of a play called "What Didn't Happen." Then-associate artistic director Robert Egan, Shinn said, was "one of the first people in this country who showed interest in my work."

His professional fortunes aside, Shinn is going through a personal trial. Diagnosed last year with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare, aggressive form of bone cancer, Shinn is amid a year of chemotherapy and recently had part of his right leg amputated. Speaking from the hospital, he said his prognosis is good and left it at that.

In the case of "Dying City," the play emerged from an unlikely but potent image.

"The idea of a young actor walking offstage in the middle of a Broadway play, of him being so angry that he would do that — I remember holding that in my head for a while," recalled Shinn. That infraction, more fully imagined, is what drives one of the play's brothers to arrive unannounced at his sister-in-law's apartment, in the play's awkward, fraught opening scene.

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And what if that outraged actor, who at some point Shinn decided was gay, had a twin brother who was not?

"The notion of genetic-driven behavior always frustrated me — people are a lot more complicated than that," said Shinn, who is himself gay, of the decision to put contrasting twins onstage.

"So I was trying to provoke the audience to think about what causes people to behave the way they behave. If you have identical twins, and one is gay and one is straight, you can't use genetics to explain it away," he said. "Yes, I think the research is well established that you don't choose your sexuality, but I wanted to convey that I don't think genetics is the answer. When I think of human behavior, I think of its overwhelming subjectivity and complexity."

In arguments between the soldier and his wife, the play also acutely captures the tensions around the Iraq war among those who disagreed about its merits — tensions that haven't disappeared so much as been sublimated.

"The decision to surge in Afghanistan, or our ongoing drone war — for whatever reason, people haven't discussed these issues passionately the way they did in the Bush era," said Shinn.

But Shinn, an outspoken devotee of psychotherapy, feels that the hard truths — personal and political — must always be faced.

"We're living in a time where people think the psyche is not that complex, and people stop pretty early in their journey of self-knowledge," Shinn said. "Ibsen and Chekhov and Shakespeare wrote most of their darkest work near the end of their lives, so obviously these great minds continued to find lies and manipulations and deceptions to write about; you might call them masochists, but I would say that they knew something about the human psyche. It does take a lifetime to know the truth, and I don't think that's an exaggeration."

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