War is hell, but there are people who thrive amid its chaos. And hell is a little different for everybody.
First produced in London in 2006, Christopher Shinn’s somber, compact drama Dying City introduces us to two people grieving for the same man, a Harvard-educated Army officer who died under hazy circumstances in Iraq. It’s around the first anniversary of the soldier’s death when his identical twin brother—a successful but narcissistic gay film actor—shows up unexpectedly to visit the dead man’s widow at her Manhattan apartment. We feel their pleasantries creak under the weight of unasked and unanswered questions even before we begin to piece together what those questions might be.
Then Kelly, the widow—she’s a therapist by trade—speculates as to why she’s lately found reruns of Law & Order irresistible, when she never watched much TV before her husband’s death: In crime procedurals, a death, any death, summons a phalanx of smart, committed people to urgent action. It feels more rational than the abrupt, inexplicable, and permanent absence that is the more genuine experience of losing a loved one to violence.
In Signature Theatre’s regional debut of this mournful two-hander, Thomas Keegan pulls double duty as the actor, Peter, and the soldier, Craig, who appears in a series of flashbacks to his final night with his wife. Structurally, Dying City recalls Diana Son’s Stop/Kiss, a drama that Rachel Zampelli—who plays Kelly, Craig’s therapist widow—appeared in at No Rules Theatre Company a year ago: Both plays hopscotch between scenes set before a violent act and scenes that follow in its wake, while the actual incident remains unseen.
It’s an impressive showcase for both actors, who must continually relocate themselves emotionally in the space of a few seconds. Keegan morphs persuasively from the brooding, masculine Craig to the more verbal and solicitous Peter in the time it takes him to replace the latter’s designer leather jacket with a flannel shirt. Zampelli’s part is less showy but perhaps even more difficult: Unlike Peter, she doesn’t give voice to every thought that enters her head. Even so, we’ll find out by the end of this brief but draining evening—the show runs barely longer than an hour—why Kelly has distanced herself from the brother-in-law who claims they were once close.
Peter is in New York to perform in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Shinn has said it’s his favorite, and you can feel the influence in his script. O’Neill’s play, too, is a work about the suffering of privileged, articulate people, revisited and gutted anew by ghosts they’d hoped had already done their worst. And like O’Neill’s posthumous masterpiece, it’s almost entirely unleavened by humor.
In Dying City’s 2007 stateside debut, the stage spun slowly in a circle, suggesting that situations we might assume we understand implicitly—the parting of a couple separated by war, the death of a soldier far from home, a rereading of a departed relative’s correspondence—can in fact be examined from any number of angles. This production eschews physical gimmickry, using subtle light and sound cues (by Colin K. Bliss and Matt Rowe, respectively) to keep us oriented as the story moves forward in two different eras. Daniel Conway’s set makes the apartment Rachel and Craig shared an enviable, book-lined space with exposed brick and three large windows. (Presumably Rachel’s domineering father, described but unseen, helped out financially, one reason Craig resents him.) Living in New York City in a swanky pad like that, the realization you’re lonely might be longer in coming than it would in, say, a cramped basement.
Dying City is a perceptive but grim illustration of how even losses we’ve already mourned can be reframed to torment us anew. It’s a short show with a long reach, cold but fine.
Reckless By Craig Lucas Directed by Richard Henrich; At Spooky Action Theater to Oct. 28
Although it’s loopier and more fun than Dying City—not that it takes much lift to clear that particular bar—Craig Lucas’ Reckless is also a story about people trying not to let their unhappy memories spoil the present. In this case, they may be succeeding too well. In an interview last year, Lucas recalled how his discomfiting and dreamlike comedy evolved after its 1983 off-off-Broadway premiere. “I cut a subplot about genetic engineering and Albanian spies that was skewing the audience’s understanding of the central dramatic action,” he said.
Spooky Action Theater’s new production offers no clue to where test-tube babies or international espionage may once have fit into this wild ride, which relies on an undercurrent of dread to sustain our interest in its dreamy provocations for so long that its tender climax comes as a genuine surprise.
The narrative follows the increasingly bizarre misfortunes of Rachel, a chirpy, childlike mother who is forced, sort of, to leave her family, including two young sons, on Christmas Eve after her husband makes a shocking admission. It feels like It’s a Wonderful Life as reimagined by David Lynch—and not the cuddly latter-day Lynch who goes around trumpeting the benefits of meditation and making albums with Danger Mouse. Shivering in her pajamas at a gas-station pay phone, Rachel accepts a lift from a stranger who invites her to spend the holiday with him and his deaf, mute, wheelchair-bound wife. Unless you’re already familiar with the play or its 1995 film adaptation, there’s no way you’ll guess where it’s going, and it would be unkind of me to tell you. The tension of whether the scenes that follow unfold in the “real” world or inside Rachel’s battered psyche persists throughout the piece. There are mundane office scenes, therapy sequences, and a visit to a nightmarish game show called Your Mother or Your Wife. We travel great temporal and geographical distances in the space of a line.
Mundy Spears’ expertly shaded performance as Rachel is a revelation. This bubbly chatterbox of a character could very easily be grating, yet Spears lets us see her hyperverbosity for the pathology that it is. As Lloyd, the stranger who takes Rachel in, Jim Zidar is wholly believable as a man desperately trying to atone for past sins while controlling a volcanic temper, of which we see only a fleeting glimpse. The strength of these performances keep us invested even when the tale occasionally threatens to disperse into a cloud of subconscious flotsam.
Spooky Action came into a windfall last year when a donor gave the small company a large bequest of valuable artworks and objects to be auctioned for cash. Production values have had a noticeable upgrade since the last time I was in their basement performance space in a 16th Street NW church. J.D. Madsen’s set design includes a large hinged wall that swings open to differentiate interior and exterior scenes. Other pieces of set slide quietly in from the wings on large platforms pushed and pulled by collapsible arms.
I’m glad that this infusion of resources has emboldened Spooky Action to take on pieces like Reckless, with its rapidly shifting locales and other staging requirements. But it’s Spears, and Zidar, and Cameron Robertson, in several roles, who make this show a class act.