Editors' pick

Dying City

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Signature Theatre

Editorial Review

A ‘Dying City,’ strangely alive
By Peter Marks
Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Does Craig, the rising star who invites himself into his sister-in-law’s flat one evening in the winningly understated “Dying City,” realize the depths of his insensitivity? Embodied by the strapping Thomas Keegan, Craig blithely mentions to taciturn Kelly (Rachel Zampelli) the dramas occurring on- and offstage in the Broadway revival of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” in which he is currently appearing.

“The play is like being in a war,” Craig observes, and, of course, the remark could not fall on less-receptive ears. The first anniversary of the death in Iraq of Kelly’s scholarly, soldier-husband Peter -- who also happens to have been Craig’s identical twin -- has just occurred, and the shattered Kelly, a therapist, is far from over her grief and fury.

As playwright Christopher Shinn so slyly blends the dizzyingly contradictory feelings of his characters in this short but stirring play, Kelly has ample reason both to love and loathe her dead mate. And in Zampelli’s expertly controlled performance, a mask of fatigued resignation disguises the sense of betrayal and bewilderment raging within.

Signature Theatre is giving Shinn’s play, a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama, a well-deserved Washington area debut. And aside from a tendency on Keegan’s part to hurry through some of Craig’s lines as if he were rushing to catch a bus, director Matthew Gardiner’s production supplies the right amount of restraint to a story loaded with resonant detail. The piece is a low-simmering psychological mystery, the sort of sophisticated evening that comes to a satisfying end without the burden of a thorough explanation.

The question Shinn seems to be asking could be applied as fully to what transpires in Kelly’s New York apartment as to the turmoil in Iraq: Why do we do these things to each other? Though the play takes place in the early 2000s entirely in Kelly’s flat, efficiently realized by set designer Daniel Conway, “Dying City” goes back and forth in time, between the evening on which Craig shows up, and the final days that Kelly and Peter spend together, before he heads to a base in Georgia and ultimately to Baghdad.

The play, therefore, requires a quick-change artist (and a convenient number of cellphone calls that must be taken in an adjoining room) for an actor’s transformation from Craig into Peter and back again. This happens so many times during “Dying City” that one begins to suspect the dramatist counts on the audience to get a little confused. (“Now, he’s Craig! . . . Now Peter!” a woman in Signature’s smaller theater, the Ark, kept stage-whispering to her seatmate in front of me.)

The disorientation reinforces our emotional allegiance to Kelly, who is subjected to mixed signals from both brothers, most significantly from Peter, who grows more distant and sullen as his date of departure nears. That the marriage is disintegrating even before Kelly realizes what’s happening is one of Shinn’s little ironies: As a therapist, she devotes her professional life to reading the warning signs in others’ relationships. Her antennae, it seems, don’t work over shorter distances.

If you enjoy looking for the mysterious convergences that do occur in both life and theater, you’ll particularly like that Craig is in “Long Day’s Journey,” during which the members of the Tyrone family obsessively pour out their grievances, revealing the extreme degrees to which they fixate on the wounds they receive at the hands of the others.

Duality presents itself everywhere. In “Dying City” -- a phrase that Peter uses to describe Baghdad, but refers, obliquely too, to the void in Kelly’s life -- the pain is just as intense, but inflicted at times with more subtlety. When at a climactic moment Craig chooses to read to Kelly one of the many Baghdad e-mails from Peter that he has saved, she instantly realizes something’s amiss. (In this moment, those antennae work perfectly.) Not to give anything away, but could Craig possibly not have anticipated what happens next? Has the self-centered, maybe even vindictive, side of him laid a devastating trap?

Keegan has the chiseled look for the roles, and he and the sultry Zampelli have undeniable chemistry. His task here is, on a technical scale, far more challenging, and one suspects that a trace of an actor’s anxiety is evident as he attempts to play brothers almost as alike in temperament as in appearance. The result -- by accident or even perhaps by design -- is that he’s spitting his lines out at a clip that renders some of them difficult to process. Keegan clearly has this role in him; a spectator comes to feel that with a few more deep breaths on his part, the lines of this biting slice of homeland insecurity will really pop.

Backstage: 'Dying City'
By Jessica Goldstein
Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012

“Dying City” at Signature Theatre is Washington’s latest installment in the “war ain’t over when it’s over” genre (see also: “Time Stands Still,” “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,”). Peter and Craig are twin brothers. Craig dies in Iraq under unclear circumstances; a year later, Peter shows up at his sister-in-law Kelly’s apartment, despite having not spoken to her since Craig’s funeral.

Thomas Keegan, who plays Peter and Craig, and Rachel Zampelli, who plays Kelly, brought the Christopher Shinn script to director Matt Gardiner together.

Gardiner, who was the director of “Xanadu” at Signature this summer, says he’s often given scripts by actors and usually reacts by “scream[ing] and running away, and I read the script thinking about how I’m going to tell them I’m not interested. But somehow, reading this play. . . . It really struck me.”

Part of the allure was the close-to-home twin brother connection (Matthew’s twin is local actor James Gardiner). “And the idea of violence in the everyday, set against the war, was something that was really intriguing to me.”

“It’s a play about war without being about war,” said Keegan. “It’s a play about the war we have with each other, and the stress that the world puts on us, and how that’s compounded by actual wartimes.”

“And the violence that’s hidden in the everyday,” added Gardiner. “It’s a subtle thing.”

For much of the play, Keegan and Zampelli are the only people onstage. “I was dreading it but really wanted to do it,” said Zampelli of the first run-through. “Once you start, you can’t stop. . . . Before you know it, you’re done, and I feel broken. But fine! We just do it.” Still, she said, “it’s exacting.”

“The other thing is -- this will sound a little precious-actor-y -- but there is a third person,” said Keegan. “Peter is in the room, or Craig is in the other room, and one of the things we’ve found in rehearsal is that the other person has a lot of pull.”