Bad playwrights talk too much. Or, rather, their mouthpieces do. Marvelously articulate, over-explaining characters who expound perfectly expressed thoughts and theories do wonders for collectors of bon mots but little for engaging drama. Mercifully, a dramatist as gifted as Christopher Shinn knows where character is concerned, more than a little self-knowledge is a dangerously uninvolving thing. His characters may think they know what they’re doing, but it’s their doubts, evasions and lack of self-knowledge that charge up his best writing, nowhere more so than in his achingly compassionate new play “Dying City.”
In broad outline, it flirts with any number of second-hand scenarios. Two people meet after a long time, yet it’s not a reunion play. There’s a plot device about secret letters, but it’s not a last-minute-revelation play. On of the characters has died in Iraq, but this is no anti-war tract.
It’s nighttime and in the Manhattan apartment she used to share with husband Craig, Kelly (Sian Brooke) is doing a little light packing and watching TV when who should turn up unannounced but Craig’s twin brother, Peter. From her furtive responses to his arrival, each of them — and the audience — immediately know something is up.
The two of them circle each other, testing the water, in a strikingly tense dance of politeness and prying that sets the almost thriller-like tone. We gradually discover the last time they saw one another was Craig’s funeral after he was killed in Iraq. Yet, typically, Shinn initially leaves that military theme hanging.
Instead, focus goes first to the amusingly self-absorbed, vain actor Peter (Andrew Scott), whose current crises range from splitting up with his boyfriend to unfinished business with Kelly. His latest problem, however, is more urgent: He has just this evening walked offstage halfway through his performance in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
True to Shinn’s love of structure, Scott then walks off into the bedroom to make a call, only to return moments later. Except that now he’s playing Peter’s twin, Craig.
The play subsequently runs along a double time structure, present scenes interleaved with the last night all three of them spent together, the night before Craig left for war.
From here on, engrossing subtext builds to an astonishing degree. Like Harold Pinter’s plot-run-backwards masterpiece “Betrayal,” this play grips by using time-slips to keep shifting the relationship between what the characters know and what the audience knows.
At its simplest level, this adds tension to Peter’s questioning of Kelly’s memories of her marriage. We know she’s lying because we’ve been privy to secret scenes of marital discord. At a more profound level, we gradually come to understand how, no matter how much they struggle to tell the truth, all three are lying to themselves.
Their self-deception and mixed motives are made manifest less in the words than in the controlled silences and charged-up glances between the actors in James Macdonald’s quietly riveting production. Macdonald, a puzzlingly unsung director, coaxes immaculately crafted perfs from his actors, who seem completely at home in Peter Mumford’s wood, glass and steel-mesh apartment set cunningly built into the pitched roof of the Royal Court’s Theater Upstairs.
Mumford indicates the shifts in time with great economy, simply raising and lowering a glass panel across the back wall that backs the space with shimmering cobalt blue light to indicate the different nights. The effect, like that of the writing, is to turn the prosaic day-to-day business of time into something poetic.
Actors love Shinn’s writing because of its ambiguities. Like a leaner, more droll Tennessee Williams, Shinn is not only a master of poignancy, he is extraordinarily good at indicating something unspoken for actors to flesh out. Both Brooke and Scott seize their opportunities yet handle complex emotions with a real lightness of touch.
Brook has a gift for concentrated stillness that allows auds to read her thoughts. Her vivid rage at Craig’s deceit is extraordinarily upsetting for arriving so completely unheralded. Similarly, her silent distress at having been betrayed is shockingly eloquent.
Scott, who similarly pulled off playing twins in Shinn’s earlier “The Coming World,” repeats what is essentially an acting trick without it appearing to be one. He shows two distinct personalities with startling economy — largely through contrasting vocal pitches, rhythms and physical centers of gravity — and then brilliantly blurs them to allow us to see the similarities between the men.
The plot gradually focuses on Craig’s service in Iraq, but Shinn is interested not in political posturing but in the ramifications upon those who loved the soldier. Most political plays go for the punch of anger; Shinn’s achievement is to have written a drama of rare delicacy in which politics are not in the character’s mouths, but in their circumstances and lives.