Grief encounter

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  October 25, 2007

Brendan is nicely acted under Justin Waldman’s fluid direction, which makes effortless the folding, unfolding, and jockeying around of the set. The Irish accents are more convincing than the Boston ones, even though most of the actors are American. Nancy E. Carroll has already proved her clipped way with the Emerald tongue, and she plays both Brendan’s letter-writing sis and his dead mum with an economical mix of tart ire and sadness. Dashiell Eaves conveys the enthusiasm and the anguish of the reticent Brendan. And Kelly McAndrew portrays the freewheeling sex worker with an all-inclusive openness that suggests the Statue of Liberty on her back.

In Christopher Shinn’s Dying City, the fallout is from Iraq rather than from Ireland, and it commingles with the dusty smoke of 9/11. But this spare, painful drama, which is receiving its area premiere at the Lyric Stage Company (through November 11), is less concerned with war and politics than with the way they infiltrate personal lives. The members of the 32-year-old Shinn’s generation are being shaped in the shadow of two conflicts, their parents’ unpopular engagement in Vietnam, and their own immersion in the violent struggle in the Middle East, both of which figure in Dying City — a title that refers to Baghdad but also encompasses New York, where the play takes place in one of the many residential boxes from which stunned inhabitants watched as the towers fell.

It’s 2005, and young Iraq War widow Kelly is desultorily packing while watching an old Law & Order when the buzzer rings and her bleak cocoon is invaded by Peter, her dead husband’s twin brother, whom she has avoided since the funeral. A semi-famous movie actor who is gay, Peter has just walked out in the middle of a performance of Long Day’s Journey into Night, after the more celebrated actor playing James Tyrone to his Edmund whispered a nasty piece of homophobic advice. Dying City will flash back and forth between Kelly and Peter’s awkward, ultimately devastating dance of politeness and avoidance and the long night’s journey into day that preceded the dead Craig’s 2004 departure for Fort Benning and then Iraq. That the brothers are identical twins allows the three-character drama to deploy just two actors.

This is the first of Shinn’s plays to hit Boston; several, including this one, have premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre before being performed in New York, where Dying City made its American debut earlier this year at Lincoln Center. It helps to know going in that though the play at first appears to be a whydunit whose answers will unfold in flashback, Shinn’s aim is more ambiguous. Dying City is less a mystery than a set of overlapping x-rays that, were they of the medical variety, might need to be repeated. Kelly, a therapist incapable of healing herself, would seem to have spent her year of widowhood in a haze of withdrawal and TV, developing in the process a theory about the popularity of Law & Order. In each episode, she opines, a death is researched, solved, and thereby “symbolically reversed.” Great therapy is a world where life and love are murkier and death is a door that cannot be reopened.

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