The scene is a New York City loft, complete with overly large leaning windows. Designer Wilson Chin's inviting and appropriate set includes a television, lengthy couch and a complete kitchen in the background. Kelly (Diane Davis), who lost her husband just a year before, is somewhat startled when her apartment buzzer rings. Her visitor is Peter (Ryan King), twin brother to Kelly's deceased husband, Craig. Peter, an actor, just walked off the stage at the intermission of a performance of Long Day's Journey Into Night and has arrived at Kelly's place. Peter, a gay man, and Kelly are not easy with one another. Silences are forced and awkward. Shin's dialogue is clipped and purposely lacking in fluidity. Secrets hang in the air.
How and why Peter died in Iraq is catalytic as scenes alternate from Kelly and Peter, then backward in time to Kelly and Craig and so forth. Playwright Shinn, to his credit, writes less rather than more ... and bids those watching to fill in and imagine what might have occurred. At the core of the script are the tempestuous relationships. Now, too late, revelations become apparent. Kelly revisits the cruel, unbearably painful moments before Craig left for Iraq.
Kelly is not certain whether to welcome Peter into her home. He is off-kilter, a step distant, perhaps not quite the caring brother-in-law to Kelly. He sent her a letter after Craig's death but she chose not to answer. Craig then stayed awaybut is there more to it?
Shinn's refusal to overstate immediately forces attentive theatergoers to listen even more acutely. He furnishes an instant dramatic hook and the focal question is posed: Why did Peter die? Everything spins about Peter's death, and the entire production absolutely catapults forward during the final half hour of this eighty-minute show. Shinn controls the tension early, assisted by two actors who provide penetrating and passionate performances.
If one thinks of Dying City in musical terms, it is more a contemporary jazz composition than one featuring repetitive, tuneful melody. Shinn writes distinctive dialogueor notes, if one continues with the music metaphorwhich are a half step higher or lower than is conventional. The back-and-forth between characters is atypical and discomfiting. This is one agitating piece of work.
There is a short period, midway through Dying City, when the pacing slows just a bit, but this is followed by a torrid final component. Director Maxwell Williams does a fine job of pushing the play fully toward the audience. Thus, the dreaded theatrical fourth wall is never an issue.
Diane Davis, making her Hartford Stage debut, is, by turns, cordial, conversational, temperamental, spirited, angered, hurt ... whatever it takes. Her face alters as her feelings vary. Ryan King, also appearing at Hartford Stage for the first time, skillfully (and within a matter of seconds) shifts from one brother's persona to the next. Both actors excel.
Dying City continue at Hartford Stage through February 8th. For ticket information, call (860) 527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.
- Fred Sokol