An ideal rebuttal to a mostly dismal season of new plays on Broadway has arrived, with impeccable timing, at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theater. It’s Christopher Shinn’s “Where Do We Live,” an exceptionally fine new play that probes with clarity and compassion the lives of a handful of New Yorkers just before, and just after, the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
In fact, as its subject matter may suggest, the play is not exactly “new,” and while its opening just after the last woozy fanfare of a dreary Broadway season is inspiriting, one wonders why it took the play two years to arrive on its home turf after its premiere at London’s prestigious Royal Court Theater. Shinn is widely regarded as one of the brightest young playwrights around — the business is not exactly teeming with them — and this is his finest work to date: What took so long?
The good news is that the play comes home in a beautifully acted production, directed by Shinn himself. The playwright has a keen eye for new talent, clearly, and knows how to elicit performances that suit the delicate, elliptical texture of his writing. He has a precise ear for the bumpy, digressive rhythms of real speech; that’s a talent so rare that many actors, sad to say, can’t quite accommodate it. The performers here, mostly tackling their first significant New York stage roles, are admirably fluent.
Unlike some more fashionable playwrights (Neil LaBute, for one), Shinn isn’t interested in writing characters as gnomic signposts announcing the moral vacuity of a generation. Yes, the young men and women in “Where Do We Live” engage in casual, maybe regrettable sex and regard drugs as a pleasurable complement to social intercourse (which may be why some of the city’s stodgier not-for-profits gave the play a pass). But Shinn employs such behaviors neither as decadent decor nor as moral barometers. They are simply part of the atmosphere in which his characters live.
The play is set mostly in a pair of neighboring apartments, apparently in one of the city’s rare ungentrified pockets. Twentysomethings Stephen (Luke MacFarlane), a writer, and his boyfriend Tyler (Jacob Pitts), an actor, share one. In the other live Shedrick (Burl Moseley), a young black man who deals a little cocaine but is trying to stop, and his disabled uncle Timothy (Daryl Edwards), who lost part of his leg (and his wife) in a car crash. Shed’s friend Lily (Liz Stauber), a sweetly addled British girl who is the sometime girlfriend of Shed’s dealer Dave (Aaron Stanford), seems to have permanently settled on the couch, along with a stack of movie magazines.
Stephen’s highly developed social conscience is pricked by the proximity of the kind of economic blight of which most of his white, gay friends take no notice. Timothy often comes by to bum cigarettes, maybe borrow a buck or two until the welfare check comes, and Stephen is happy to oblige; but Tyler warns him to keep his distance, particularly when Shed shows up one day, sullenly, and perhaps threateningly, intimating the same.
Although the apartments share much of the same space in Rachel Hauck’s neatly integrated set design, Shinn makes bluntly, even brutally clear that, for both sets of characters, the apartment across the hall might as well be in another borough, the people from another, possibly dangerous species. (In one chilling scene, enhanced by Jill BC DuBoff’s terrific sound design, Stephen and Tyler try to have sex while Shed blasts a homophobic rap rant next door.)
Stephen, played with tender sincerity by MacFarlane, a significant new talent, has a young idealist’s tendency toward self-righteousness. He wants to change the world, to awaken in his friends the “empathy” for the underclass he speaks of so passionately. He starts with Tyler’s ditzy friend Billy (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), but their debate at a party ends in frustration; shortly thereafter, Tyler has moved out, and Stephen is left bereft. The next time Timothy shuffles by looking to bum a smoke, a despairing Stephen sends him away: “I quit,” he shouts angrily through the door. The moment, in its eloquent simplicity, is simply heartbreaking.
Fine acting underscores the subtle, perceptive, admirably economical writing. (Small quibble: On a few occasions the playwright brings the volume up abruptly on a thematic point.) Pitt strikes just the right breezy but amiable note as Tyler; Stauber is superb as the friendly Lily, and her British accent is flawless; Moseley has a strong, brooding presence as Shed, whose attempt to go straight seems to be doomed.
The play’s last scenes take place in the final days of September 2001, but scarcely any overt reference is made to the events of 9/11. Shinn captures, as no playwright yet has, the strange, terrible continuity of those days in New York — how, for most people, little really changed, even as we were being told that everything had. Another quietly wrenching moment: Stephen’s casual admission, to a guy he’s picked up in a bar, that Tyler didn’t call him after 9/11.
Shinn finds small but resonant moments of grace, too, that can be traced to the emotional trauma that haunted the city’s inhabitants, even as everyday life quickly resumed its normal course: A last offer of cigarettes carries the delicate suggestion that in the aftermath of the devastation, some new seeds of compassion may have been planted.