Review: Dying City by Christopher Shinn

“This city is dying and we are the ones killing it,” writes Craig, a U.S. soldier stationed in Abu Ghraib, in an e-mail to his twin brother, Peter.

But Craig’s statement is playwright Christopher Shinn’s metaphor for the larger War Against Terror—just as it also captures the very private, personal dysfunction between Craig and his wife, Kelly.

First produced in London in 2006, then exported to the U.S. in 2007—where it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama—Dying City is a taught, simmering little play that focuses on Craig’s deployment and the heartbreak he, Kelly, and Peter all suffer as a result.

The action takes place in Kelly’s apartment. “I imagine a design that lives in naturalism but suggests something beyond it,” Shinn explains in a note at the beginning of the script. There are doors that lead offstage to a bedroom and a bathroom—important points to note in order to allow the play’s main conceit to work: Peter and Craig, as identical twins, are played by the same actor. Depending on which character is onstage at the time, he’ll leave at the end of the scene and then re-emerge as the other brother for the next scene.

Craig’s scenes take place in January of 2004 and Peter’s scenes take place in July 2005, nearly a year after Craig’s “accidental” death in Iraq. As Kelly and Peter grieve, their mourning uncovers dark secrets about Craig.

Published by Theatre Communications Group in 2008, Dying City makes outstanding reading as a script. “I’ve kept stage directions to a minimum, omitting obvious actions, in an attempt to avoid clutter,” Shinn explains. As a result, the stripped down text throws all the focus onto the play’s remarkably tight dialogue. Shinn has an ear for the way people talk—and for what they don’t say, too—and captures it with perfect pitch on the page.

Dying City makes for a relatively quick read, but it packs a powerful, poignant punch with an ending that’s both unexpected and satisfying. The city might be dying, but humanity, somehow, endures.

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