Arts & Events

Theater Review: 'Dying City'--Anton's Well at the City Club

Ken Bullock
Friday January 08, 2016 - 01:59:00 PM

"I'm interrupting your 'Law & Order' ... "

In Christopher Shinn's play 'Dying City,' a Bay Area premiere of a Pulitzer finalist script by Anton's Well Theater Company, the twin brother of a soldier who died in Iraq shows up unannounced, ringing the doorbell to see his brother's widow, almost a year after the tragedy. He's an actor, who'd been appearing onstage in a NYC production of 'Long Day's Journey Into Night'--though as he puts it, "It was not true" and "It turned out more like 'Long Day's Journey Into the Hamptons' "--and has just walked offstage and out of the production in the middle of a show, in part because of being hazed for his very open gayness.

The wife is a therapist who's dropped out of her practice after her husband's death, watching TV all day on the couch, hugging a pillow. As the conversation with her brother-in-law develops, culminating in him reading aloud from emails sent from Iraq, a Family Romance of sorts begins to appear, the kind of ghostly menage that's hinted at when the younger brother of a combat victim marries his brother's fiancee. And there's also the constant play of theater, personal drama and the theater of war--including as much absence of truth in war reports as in stage productions, though the stage is the only theater in this case easily walked out on. 

There is, too, the theatrical device of flashbacks, something harder to manage onstage than onscreen. (The great exception in American theater is 'Death of a Salesman,' which adapted a dramaturgy drawing on Arthur Miller's talents as a radio playwright.) Here, it's done with an easy deftness by the two actors--Katie Tandy as Kelly the widow and Andrew MacIver playing both twin brothers, Peter the actor and Craig the fated soldier. MacIver in particular is impressive, shedding one role in its body language and speech and taking on a very different skin in the twinkling of an eye, but without flutter. 

What's immediately apparent is the unusual rapport between the actors, pleasing to witness, two school friends who've continued to play opposite each other onstage. Their care with the roles--and the sense of background, of the care too of director and company founder Robert Estes, carries the evening. Estes directed an engaging production of Pinter's 'Old Times' last year at the City Club, and again there, only a month ago, Liz Duffy Adams' 'Or,' reviewed in the Planet, which ended up running awhile in repertory with 'Dying City.' Anton's Well's ambitious program for the future includes another, as yet unannounced, show for the City Club in April and Estes' hope to direct his idol Chekhov's masterpiece 'Uncle Vanya' sometime in the future. 

Shinn's play's an interesting take on a whole complex--or miasma--of themes, but never seems to crystallize, either in the sense of what it finally states or what it leaves to the audience's imagination. 'Dying City' may refer to the banalities of New York City life, as reflected in the characters' talk--or chit-chat about sex and jockeying for social recognition and position--but much of the dialogue comes across as banal itself, not as illuminating of banality, versus the serious talk about war and relationships, which sometimes becomes sentimentalized as a result. 

But it's the attempt to explore something elusive and serious, maybe bogged down by the cliches of the current state of the American stage, which it also satirizes. There's maybe an echo, too, of other war stories fraught with identity shifts, ambiguities and cruelty, like Proust's tale of Robert de Sant-Loup in 'Searching for Lost Time' ('Remembrance of Things Past'), who goes off to war happily, joining the male cadres he's passionate about, and is killed, while society interprets his enlistment as one of despair, blaming his wife for driving him away, when it was Sant-Loup who was unfaithful. 

Like the very different 'Or,' which was a fast, bawdy comedy about female playwright Aphra Behn and the identity bending of the English Restoration, 'Dying City' proves to be an absorbing evening in the salon theater of the City Club--and the third successful production of a new, ambitious and entertaining theater company. 

Next Tuesday and Wednesday, January 12th and 13th at 8, are the last two held-over performances of 'Dying City' at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant between Ellsworth and Dana. $20 general, $17 students and seniors. or on Facebook.