There are many ways of being a political playwright. Christopher Shinn's approach, centered on characters rather than on ideologies, is one that will never go out of style.
Illuminating large-scale public concerns through the microscopic examination of individual behavior, Shinn finds political meaning in psychological patterns. In plays such as "Four" and "Where Do We Live" (to my mind, the most resonant theatrical response to 9/11), he has shown how the conduct of our nation is reflected in our most intimate relationships.
"Dying City," Shinn's mesmerizing drama now having its Los Angeles premiere courtesy of Rogue Machine, offers an intriguing tussle between Kelly, a psychotherapist, and the memory of her husband, Craig, who was killed in the Iraq War under circumstances that leave open the possibility of suicide.
This past is brought back in all its anguish and bitterness by the unexpected visit of Peter, Craig's identical twin brother, a gay actor still grappling with the loss of his comrade in childhood suffering. Kelly has been ignoring Peter's overtures in the year since Craig has died, but Peter's unresolved grief won't allow him to stay away.
Peter arrives at Kelly's door just as she's about to move out of New York. Their conversation, which takes place in Kelly's living room (effectively arranged in a tight space by scenic designer Tom Buderwitz), sets up the expectation of a fraught two-character psychodrama.
It's not long, however, before a third character appears: Craig himself. He hasn't returned from the dead, but he has left too much unfinished business for the past to stay in the past. Scenes between Kelly and Craig are reenacted whenever Peter leaves the room.
The logistics of this are necessary as one actor plays both male roles. Yet thematically the arrangement works perfectly, as Shinn is exploring not just the legacy of grief but the way violence impinges on identity, gender and sexuality.
The subject of post-traumatic stress disorder has naturally been in the news of late given the last decade of war. "Dying City" is more interested in the trauma that leads men into aggression, the shell-shock that occurs not on battlefields but in the homes of young boys cowering in the shadows of turbulent fathers — brothers who grow up to become numbed adults, leaving a fresh trail of misery behind them.
Directed by Michael Peretzian and starring Laurie Okin and Burt Grinstead, the production serves Shinn's drama admirably. The acting is as meticulously observed as it is emotionally tense. And though confined to a cramped room, the staging fluidly handles the shifts of time and situation.
It's not easy to portray a psychotherapist. Conveying empathy and understanding can get monotonous. In drawing Kelly's character, Shinn has taken pains to reveal a woman who is hardly a master of her own experience. Okin makes us privy to Kelly's inner turmoil, the rage and despair that are always threatening to slip beyond her tactful self-control.
Grinstead vividly differentiates between Peter and Craig. There were times when I wondered whether Peter's mannerism and vocal inflections were a bit too stereotypical (wouldn't Peter's film career be jeopardized by his flamboyance?). But Shinn is investigating the performance of masculinity, and Grinstead's choices make both theatrical and thematic sense.
Kudos to Rogue Machine for presenting this challenging work. Shinn, whose plays have been frequently produced by London's Royal Court Theatre (where "Dying City" had its premiere in 2006), hasn't received his due in Los Angeles. Perhaps our larger nonprofits are scared off by the intense intimacy of his playwriting.
Their loss is Rogue Machine's gain. Combining the scrupulous attention to detail of a fine short story writer with the imaginative freedom of a path-breaking dramatist, Shinn proves himself to be an indispensable guide, a dramatist whose work throws acute light on the internal havoc driving our American waywardness.
Where: Rogue Machine in Theatre Theatre, 5041 Pico Blvd., L.A.
When: 5 p.m. Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Mondays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends July 8.
Contact: (855) 585-5185 or http://www.roguemachinetheatre.com
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
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