Dying City by Christopher Shinn

Dates and Venue 7 – 16 May 2009, 8pm | Little Mountain Studios, 26th Avenue at Main

Director Ben Ratner Production Design Chad Krowchuk & Darcy Belsher Costume Design Barbara Gregusova Lighting Calum Smith Stage Manager Andrea Heald

Reviewer John Jane

Set in the penumbra of the war in Iraq, Christopher Shinn’s single-act play, Dying City is a three-character drama performed by two actors that manifests as a counterpoint between two separate instances a year and a half apart. The morbid title actually refers to Baghdad; though, the metaphorical reference might apply to any large western city undergoing adverse change.

The action begins in July 2005 in a simply furnished New York apartment. Kelly (Carrie Ruscheinsky) a young therapist, and as we soon discover, a recent widow is about to settle down to an episode of “Law and Order” when the buzzer rings. It's her brother-in-law Peter (Ben Cotton), who has given no warning of his arrival and Kelly appears unsure about wanting to meet with him.

After some awkward small-talk, it’s revealed that their last meeting was at the funeral of Kelly’s husband and Peter’s twin brother Craig, a Harvard graduate killed a year earlier in Iraq under very mysterious circumstances.

The action then ricochets back and forth between this day and January of the previous year, the eve of Craig's departure for military duty. Under Ben Ratner’s astute direction, the flashback scenes are handled with a minimum of distraction, even though they take place at the same location and involve only Kelly and Craig, played by the same actor as Peter.

Ben Cotton, a late replacement for Adam Lolacher does a solid job on the twin brothers. He’s even terrific as Peter, displaying the affected nuances of the egocentric, yet disarmingly friendly gay actor. As the more physically direct Craig however, he has a tendency to chew up the scenery.

Carrie Ruscheinsky, on stage for the entire performance, is wholly convincing as the inveterate victim. Emotionally abused by her father and unloving husband, her reaction to Craig’s betrayal is incisive and eloquent.

Shinn’s provocative drama may have been written for a small venue production, and Ben Ratner makes this coup de théâatre dovetail perfectly into the tiny Little Mountain Studios theatre. Likewise, the functional, split-level set fits well onto the small stage and cannily removes the demarcation between audience and performers. There was nothing small about the performances, on the contrary, the proximity of audience to the players tended to make the acting at times overwhelming.

Aside from allusions to the attack on the World Trade Centre and Abu Ghraib (the Baghdad Correctional Facility), Christopher Shinn’s play is apolitical. It’s more profound central themes are that of subterfuge and self-deceit. Human failings that these talented actors convey all too well.

© 2009 John Jane