Signature Theatre Dying CityBy Genie Baskir • Oct 9th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA
Through November 25th
$47.10-$79.90 includes service charge
Reviewed October 6th, 2012
Kelly and Peter have each lost their other half: Kelly, her husband, Craig; Peter, his identical twin brother, Craig. It seems that Craig’s death in Iraq was not in combat. Later it will come out that Craig committed suicide during a target training exercise. If this seems a spoiler, it is impossible to critique this impractical effort by a recognized contemporary playwright without taking him to task for his lack of due diligence in crafting an accurate story and betraying a spoiler to clarify the point.
Dying City by Christopher Shinn makes its Washington, D.C. area première at The ARK at Signature Theatre. This peek behind closed doors purportedly studies the effects of a foreign war perpetrated on and by the upper middle class; but really its composition is the result of a marketing effort demanding the writing of made to measure characters for the specific audience that will pay outrageous and inflated ticket (never mind the punishing service charges on the ticket sales) prices for a one hour live episode of yuppie melodrama. That being said, this play is good because of sublime performances by Thomas Keegan and Rachel Zampelli. Though Zampelli seems to err on the kvetchy side as an actress, here the kvetch works for her as her life descends into bathos when her air sucking brother-in-law shows up unannounced on the evening of the anniversary of her husband’s death in the Iraq War.
Is there no one who hasn’t gone to Harvard?!!! Every contemporary story today is about H-bombs and their icky lives. Who cares? In real life everyone wants to go to Harvard because it is believed that a Harvard degree is a ticket to a golden life and the tschotschkes to trick it out. In theatre and literature H-bomb status just means that life descends into Job like misery so the 47% mooching class can have its exercise in schadenfreude. It is, after all, H-bomb economists and finance experts idolizing at the fount of the University of Chicago who broke the country in 2008; near or before the time that this play takes place. Kelly (Zampelli) and husband, Craig (Keegan) are H-bombs on the road to the golden ticket. Kelly is a most unlikely therapist in that she needs to get therapy more than she needs to offer it. Craig was a Faulkner scholar on the road to a doctorate. So, how does he end up in Iraq? The storyline is to have him participate in ROTC in order to be able to afford Harvard after which he is obliged to serve in the army in order pay back ROTC for his education. However, Harvard booted ROTC off the campus during the Vietnam War and only invited it back in 2012. The only way Craig could have participated in ROTC would have been by ambling east on Massachusetts Avenue to the other game in town, MIT. This may be a minor point, but it’s indicative of the laziness in constructing this narrative because Harvard’s antipathy to any endeavor defense related reaches back more than four decades in the recent past. This is not classified information. Because Harvard is a needs blind institution with an endowment that can support a medium-sized nation, it can bear the cost on its own to support a Faulkner scholar’s dissertation because this country is in great need of more of them. This play would have more credence and drama if Kelly and Craig just attended highly regarded unnamed universities and the sadness would resonate with an audience that actually wants to sympathize with the plight of these people. There can be no sympathy for this lot as they’re written because the back story inspires either envy or derision, not sympathy. If I went to Harvard I could be miserable in that great apartment too. However, maybe sympathy is not intended; in which case, never mind and please disregard this last paragraph.
The setup really focuses on Peter (also Keegan), who shows up at Kelly’s door late at night. Whereas Craig was an upright, most straight arrow sort of guy, Peter is a mincing and fey Peter Pan actor breathlessly prattling on about how handsome everyone thinks he is and how famous he is. It is certain he is famous because he declines to go talk to his younger lover’s students because his presence in the school would just disrupt everything and he would waste everyone’s day basking in his reflected star light signing autographs and posing for pictures with God and everyone. Peter is in New York now because he is a principal in a currently running hit show. We can tell it’s New York because the set is recycled from God of Carnage, another Signature Theatre show about self-absorbed New Yorkers. Anyway, Peter just broke up with one male lover because he was still carrying on with the previous lover and now a fellow cast member is seen fellating Peter backstage between scenes and Peter is in deep sh*t and he doesn’t know what to do so he walks off the play between acts and shows up unannounced at Kelly’s so he can force TMI on her. How conceited is that? Which is precisely the point of the show: Peter’s conceit and his inability to consider anyone else and Craig’s enabling of his twin brother’s vanities, even in death.
Kelly and Peter are mourning the perfect Craig, but Craig devolves into more and greater imperfection as the two survivors remember him. Kelly is desultory throughout her scenes with Peter. It is supposed to seem that she is mourning the anniversary of Craig’s death, but her purposelessness is repeated in the flashbacks of her life with Craig before he deployed and it becomes apparent that their marriage failed them both upon saying, “I do.” Kelly really stopped mourning on the evening she was apprised of Craig’s death and her life only took on meaning at that moment, because widowhood, in this case, became liberation with survivor benefits. Craig and Peter are really two sides of the same coin and Peter’s insistence on barging back into Kelly’s life just as she is embarking upon a new life altogether sends her over the edge into self-awareness of history repeating itself and it is most satisfying, indeed, when she throws him out and resumes packing up her things to move far away. There is a whole lot of in and out door activity as Keegan goes through to quick change between Peter and Craig. He is superb as he changes his mien between the two distinctly different men of the same face and body. Keegan and Zampelli spend the hour in a Sanford Meisner technique repetition exercise moment facing and reacting to one another whether Keegan is Craig or he is Peter. This is very compelling; which is why the Harvard and ROTC shtick is so egregious; it’s just not necessary to illustrate the essential characters of the principals. Kelly didn’t deserve either Craig or Peter because she was better than both of them and the two men spend their time together in one body punishing Kelly for this. The Iraq War is not essential to Craig’s death and imbues it with no more meaning than if Craig had just jumped into a grain silo containing some esoteric heirloom kernel grown for and sold to Harvard graduates in New York City. Either way, he has died and Kelly’s life can begin because both Craig and Peter were nullifying her. In order to craft made to measure characters for the creative class the playwright must have felt that he had to indulge this privileged audience by pretending to larger meaning by commingling its one percent characters with the plight of the left behind for whom the United States Armed Forces and its adventures may be the only future. Aren’t we all one hundred percenters now? But, in the end, the story of the characters, exclusive of the war details, is compelling on its face and Keegan and Zampelli are masterful in their collective presentation. All that can be said about Director Matthew Gardiner, after reading his meshuganah Director’s note, is that he knows what he’s doing as a director even if he’s describing an entirely different play than the one being presented here.
The sardonic reality is that the United States as a nation no longer goes to war. Certain strata of the population deploy and engage in some President’s foolish adventure while everyone else falls into cynical self-satisfaction and gets its news from Jon Stewart. There is no longer any collective suffering in war. Most of us don’t even realize that our nation is at war and certainly there is no equality of war deprivations small or large or even at all. The last bout of collective suffering produced such euphoria at its official end that the most iconic photograph of that age is now being written about as a potential sexual assault by over privileged snarks whose worst life experience was getting a B in middle school science. How have we come to this; and is this an advancement for civilization or a throwback to a prior age when it was expected that the haves would plunder the have-nots when they weren’t using them for cannon fodder? Playwright Shinn is commendably looking for something larger than one percent privilege to drive the detachment of the principals but he errs in its execution by getting the small details wrong. Privileged Presidential candidate H-bomb John Kerry volunteered for action in Vietnam, was wounded, earned decorations and awards for valor and got himself libeled by the same madcap adventurers that assured Craig’s death in Iraq. Privileged Presidential candidate H-bomb Willard Mitt Romney took a military deferment from Vietnam on religious grounds and spent that war living in a château and bicycling around France trying to evangelize the French to forswear their wine, coffee and Gauloise’s. He campaigns for executive office on a platform that includes rattling swords at nations that want no part of a war with the United States because he has not been to war. People like him no longer have to fight and neither does the audience for this show. That’s the play that needs to be written; custom fit for the audience for whom war is a news report and not a daily fact of life. Shinn can do it because he can convey the distress and nightmare that war wreaks on its combatants, but Dying City is not that play.
Christopher Shinn’s intimate story feels perfect at this time and for the ARK Theatre. Shinn is a playwright whose stories take place behind closed doors and are deeply private-but he is able to explore these intimate stories within the context of the vast, messy and uncontrollable outside world.
In Dying City, Shinn is exploring the idea of War; not just the wars fought by countries with guns, but the wars fought in our own homes. He is specifically looking at the violence that hides in our everyday lives, the violence that we inflict on those we love-while ingeniously setting this idea against the much larger backdrop of the Iraq War. While today this war may seem to be dying out, it is a war that we are still dealing with on a deeply personal level-one that may be hard for many of us to recognize. Shinn poses fascinating questions about what make us inherently violent; what deep-rooted parts of our history, both personally and as Americans, shape our personal acts of violence and betrayal-and at the same time how violence is at our core as human beings.
Photos by Scott Suchman
- Kelly: Rachel Zampelli
- Peter/Craig: Thomas Keegan
- Director: Matthew Gardiner
- Production Stage Manager: Julie Meyer
- Director of Production: Michael D. Curry
- Scenic Design: Daniel Conway
- Costume Design: Frank Labovitz
- Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills
- Sound Design: Matt Rowe
- Original Music: Peter Lerman
Disclaimer: Signature Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/8730.
Genie Baskir is a theatrical producer. She worked in radio production and direction for many years and gravitated to theatre when family members became involved with the stage.