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Dying City
in rotating repertory with
Two Rooms

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Erin Cronican and Brandon Walker.
Photo by Russ Rowland.

Revivals of two one-act plays about the collateral damage of war (especially on the ones who are left behind to deal with the consequences) make for a deeply compelling and richly provocative theatrical venture in The Seeing Place's paired productions of Christopher Shinn's Dying City and Lee Blessing's Two Rooms at ATA's Sargent Theater.

Whether you see them on separate days, or, as I did, in back-to-back performances, you will find much to admire and be disturbed by in Dying City, and much to empathize with and be disturbed by in Two Rooms. The two plays could not be more different in style, but seeing them together will feed both your head and your heart, making for striking variations on a theme of how we all strive awkwardly and clumsily to make the right decisions in order to keep our noses above the waterline.

Dying City is the more cerebral of the plays, filled with stilted conversations that reflect the messiness of its characters for whom internal wars are at least as destructive as the external ones. Shinn carefully offers up apparent cause-and-effect situations, and then turns them inside out as he gradually peels things back to their source.

As the play opens, Kelly (Erin Cronican) is home alone in her apartment when she is jarred into alertness by the sound of her door buzzer insistently going off. From her jumpy reaction, we can tell she neither expects nor desires company. But after some hesitation, she does open the door to her visitor. It is Peter, the identical twin brother of her late husband Craig (both men are played by Brandon Walker), killed the previous year in some sort of "accident" in Iraq. Kelly and Peter have not seen each other since the funeral, and their reunion is awkward and uncomfortable for both of them.

Forget any conclusions you might leap to, however. Shinn compels us to take time to understand what drives his characters. As is too often the case, it is the woman who most suffers the consequences of war, both the literal combat situation and the metaphorical one. As you watch the interactions between Peter and Kelly, and flashback scenes between Craig and Kelly, we discover that these men are two unsavory peas in a pod, and that although we can certainly sympathize with Craig's death, there is no salvation to be found through it.

Because Shinn presents his characters in bits and pieces of intentionally choppy and frustratingly unrevealing dialog, it is important to pay attention to the details—from references to the twins' Vietnam-veteran father, to their sexually predatory behaviors, to the casual use of Xanax, Paxil, and Valium, to Peter's unrewarding acting career. In the end, the title of the play reflects many layers of meaning for a trio of lost souls and, perhaps, for an entire generation of young adults they represent.

Alexandra Hellquist and Justin Hoch.
Photo by Russ Rowland.

Where Dying City asks us to be analytical observers, Lee Blessing's Two Rooms hits us directly in the heart. We are immediately pulled into the story of Michael and Lanie Wells, who have been wrenched apart by Michael's captivity as a hostage in war-torn Lebanon. The two rooms of the title represent the place where Michael is being held, handcuffed and blindfolded, and his home office that Lanie has stripped bare of furniture and where she spends her time on a mat on the floor imagining herself sharing her husband's prison.

If anything, Blessing's work, dating to 1990, feels even more real and compelling today than it did in the past, given all we have learned about hostage-taking, competing factions with unclear goals, and the seeming inability of the Government to handle crises of this nature.

It is truly painful to watch Michael (Logan Keeler) and Lanie (Alexandra Hellquist) in their separate isolated spaces, trying to keep hope alive. Unlike the characters in Dying City, these two clearly love one another and long for nothing other than to be reunited. Michael is one of the good guys, a professor at the American university in Beirut, who was captured and held prisoner by a group of very young men (he wonders if some of them were his own students), who seem to have no purpose in mind other than to hold him indefinitely, and periodically beat him for the sin of being an American.

For Lanie's part, her isolation is voluntary and does not entirely fill her days. She continues her work as a naturalist (we learn some disturbing facts about bird behaviors), and she does not spend all of her time alone. She is visited on a regular basis by Ellen (Lila Smith), representing the State Department and its interests in keeping her quiet and under wraps, and by Walker (Justin Hoch) a newspaper reporter who wants her to publicize her story to the world.

As is true of Kelly in Dying City, the burden falls on the woman, and Lanie wrestles with what to do, weighing how her actions or inactions will impact the slim possibility that her husband will be returned to her.

The pairing of these two plays was a smart decision by The Seeing Place, which has been steadily growing in terms of the overall quality of the acting and in its increased understanding of production values in the five years of its existence. Both the lighting and the use of music are very effective in these productions, and such attention to detail greatly enhances them. It was nice to see a packed house on the day I attended, and I hope this means the always-interesting company is drawing well-earned attention to its work.

Dying City in rotating repertory with Two Rooms
Through March 9
The Seeing Place @ ATA's Sargent Theater, 314 West 54th Street, 4th Floor
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix

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