For Christopher Shinn, the fateful events of September 11, 2001 were not the beginning or the end of drama, but one step along the way. His play Where Do We Live, which premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre in 2002 and has just opened at the Vineyard Theatre, is intrinsically about that time, though Shinn makes no attempts to dramatize events of any sort on September 11.
In his view, the real story is in the way New Yorkers treated each other before and after that day and reacted to all the tragedies associated with it, both monumental and miniscule. For Shinn, human compassion is perhaps the most important commodity one can possess, and his characters spend a significant portion of two intermissionless hours discussing and arguing about who has it, who doesn't, and why.
When Shinn, who also directed this production, finally arrives at the breaking point of that subject, what had been a class-consciousness comedy with a cutting, contemporary edge ultimately becomes unsatisfying. Where Do We Live morphs into a preachy, angry didacticism almost entirely lacking the subtleties and nuances it had earlier thrived upon, and Shinn drives home his messages about post-September 11 moralizing so severely that it at times feels like a physical assault.
It's an unfortunate conclusion to an otherwise promising play examining two disparate (yet not unrelated) groups of people congregating on one floor in a Lower East Side apartment building. The first is a collection of artistically inclined gay men, represented primarily by writer Stephen (Luke MacFarlane) and his actor boyfriend Tyler (Jacob Pitts); across the hall lives a struggling older black man named Timothy (Daryl Edwards), who lost his leg in an accident, and the younger Shedrick (Burl Moseley), apparently Timothy's son, who must deal drugs to help the family make ends meet.
Stephen's desire to help Timothy - through actions as commonplace as loaning him cigarettes or money - is eventually reflected in his dealings with Tyler, who lives off a trust fund. As the play progresses, Stephen and Tyler's relationship must bear the strain of inclement political differences, with their friends (Stephen's bartender friend Patricia, played by Emily Bergl, and Tyler's acting friend Billy, played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson, among them) either taking sides or not. Rest assured that the resolution of these arguments (and the Stephen/Tyler relationship) occurs in the play before September 11 does.
Yet it's difficult to care much about that resolution when it arrives, as the Timothy/Shedrick plotline is not balanced well enough with the Stephen/Tyler story to bring the two together. The Stephen and Tyler scenes seem to pique Shinn's interest more, and they unquestionably contain his better writing; the dialogue is funnier, sharper, and more obviously informed by his own experiences. The scenes between Timothy, Shedrick, and those associated characters lack authenticity, and the characters are drawn in broader and less effective strokes.
Shinn's staging of the piece (this is his directorial debut) compensates for these problems to some degree, and Shinn exhibits a fine talent for pacing and focusing his work onstage. Rachel Hauck's set design, which depicts the two apartments and a number of other locations, is full but uncluttered, and David Weiner lights it well. (The costumes designed by Mattie Ullrich and the sound designed by Jill BC Du Boff fit right in.)
The acting is fine across the board, though Ferguson stands out, successfully bringing his crack comic sensibility to a series of minor roles that complement his more considerable stage time as Billy. (The comedy in his other roles makes Billy's eventual emotional turnabout even more striking.) MacFarlane and Pitts are fine but occasionally bland as Stephen and Tyler, though Bergl has some good moments as Patricia. Edwards and Moseley do as well as possible by their underwritten roles, and Liz Stauber finds decent humor, but little dramatic necessity, in her role as Shedrick's female friend, Lily.
While Stauber's role, with its dubious connection to the central stories, is emblematic of the play's weaknesses, the play's strengths primarily lie in its daring originality. Shinn's not relying strictly on pathos to make his points, and his willingness to examine the issues surrounding September 11 as equally as important as the day itself, are gutsy dramatic attacks. More plays of this nature could benefit from similarly unexpected takes on their subject matter.
Still, the famous axiom applies to authors of those types of plays, and even perhaps to Shinn: "Write what you know." That seems relevant in light of this show's climactic moment, an argument about welfare in which Billy rails against Stephen for claiming knowledge of his life and financial circumstances he couldn't possibly possess. One can't help wonder if the majority of Where Do We Live isn't a symptom of Shinn's tendency to do exactly the same thing.