Be advised, dear reader: On opening night, Mosaic Theatre's Dying City was so gripping that this reviewer forgot to take a single note. Therefore, anything I say about the show is reconstructed from memory and from conversations with other people who were there. Not that they're much help.
Because Dying City is a show that dazes you, like a truncheon to the head. It's the kind of show for which people can barely applaud, even if they know that what they've seen is worthy of a standing ovation and multiple curtain calls. Leaving the theater after a performance of Dying City at the Mosaic feels like waking up, half-stoned, in a tub full of ice water and realizing you've got a fresh scar just beginning to heal on your abdomen, right over the place where one of your kidneys should be.
So it's not an easy play to see or think about, and my impressions are all over the place. I suggest you see it for yourself. Now, to the review:
I don't envy Erin Joy Schmidt.
In Christopher Shinn's virtuosic doom-and-gloom extravaganza, she is almost never allowed to leave the stage, whereupon two men are subjecting her to degradations so weird, subtle, and awful that even the misogynists in the audience can't predict what will happen next. This continues for 90 minutes or so, and then it stops. The play closes with Schmidt watching The Daily Show in the stillness of her New York apartment, laughing.
That laughter is the one part of Schmidt's performance that looks like acting. It's probably intentional, but I doubt she could change the situation if she tried. Laughing at the end of Dying City would be like giving in to a giggle at the end of a one-woman show by Lars Van Trier.
Here's what happened: She has just bid adieu to her dead husband's twin brother, Craig (Ricky Waugh). It had been a while since they'd seen each other: Schmidt's character, a therapist named Kelly, seemingly disappeared after her husband's death in Iraq. (He was an officer, and he accidentally shot himself in front of his men.) She put in an appearance at the funeral, and then, shortly after receiving a letter from Craig, changed her phone number. We never learn much about that letter, save this: In it, Craig offered to have a baby with Kelly, since she and her husband never got around to it.
Craig is gay, a newly famous actor of stage and screen. He's a nervous man and spends most of the show projecting a terrible, unspoken loneliness. This is expressed by Waugh as an intense preoccupation with his own inner monologue. He casts his eyes down during line after line, as though he's reading from a script on his lap. He lingers over reports of his own feelings, which he shares with Kelly like gossip. Here is a man used to the company of his own thoughts. We'd like to pity him, and we'd like to like him. The idea that a lonely, successful gay man might have a baby with his lonely, grieving sister-in-law — a baby, moreover, who would be genetically identical to the one she might have had with her husband — ought to please us.
Despite the seeming innocence of Kelly and Craig's reunion, just after curtain up, we almost immediately sense there is something wrong. We sense it even before Waugh takes the stage. The play begins with Kelly on her couch, watching Law and Order, and the series' ambient music clashes so violently with Dying City's background piano noodlings that I, at least, felt the first stirrings of a fight-or-flight response in my gut. The discord becomes torturous when Kelly's intercom buzzes, signaling Craig's arrival downstairs. Kelly must be feeling some of our own unease: It takes her a long time to get to the intercom and find out who's come calling, and as she makes her way there, the terror on her face is so out of proportion to what's going on that I half-assumed she would open her door to find not her ex-brother-in-law but a raven astride a bust of Pallas.
That would be better than the truth, though "truth" doesn't reveal itself for a while. In the meantime, we cut from present-day scenes of awkward conversation between Kelly and Craig — conversations that seem to be groping toward sweetness, but never quite make it — to scenes from over a year earlier, on the night before Kelly's husband, Peter, was to fly to Camp Benning and then to Iraq. You'd think these flashbacks would be happier than the present-day scenes, but you'd be wrong.
There has been a sendoff party for Peter (who, like Craig, is played by Waugh), and it's over now. As the hour grows late and we see more and more of Kelly and Peter's nighttime patter, unpleasant things begin floating up through the soft surfaces of their talk. At least superficially, Peter is very different from Craig: Whereas Craig seems gentle, introverted, and mealy-mouthed, Peter is gruff — and, we see, cruel. He makes lightning-quick moral judgments on people of all kinds, from his wife to his brother to people he's only ever heard about. It's boorish and offensive, and only Kelly seems not to notice. She's used to it. The nightmare that is Dying City has yet to begin for her; the men have lived there a long time.
As they talk about the war, about children, and about love, it seems that they're speaking to each other from different worlds: She from the world of domestic tranquility, he from some filthy corner into which he's been backed by something evil and unseen. She is languid; he is full of hate. They do not truly understand each other until later — when Peter delivers a piece of news, which for Kelly marks the beginning of her own long nightmare and which for us provides an explanation.
And what is that nightmare? What might turn a play about a farewell party and a reunion into a horror show? I don't think I should say. Dying City is about the hidden parts of people, about how corruption can live in the hearts of those we love as well as those we hate, and the only appropriate response is surprise. It doesn't really matter what brought about Kelly's undoing anyway: The interesting question is why she was undone — by Craig, no less than Peter.
The two brothers are very much the same, despite their superficial variances. There is a window in Kelly's apartment through which, in 2001, she and Peter watched the Twin Towers burn and fall. Both Peter and Craig come back to that moment, again and again — talking about what it meant, how it felt. When they do, they stand in front of that window, looking out, as though they could see the towers burning still, and the same funny look comes into their eyes. Not grief, necessarily, so much as curiosity.
It's worth noting that the window isn't part of the set at all. It is affixed to the fourth wall — the invisible wall through which the audience views the play's action. Craig and Peter are looking out at the audience when they see those flaming husks. They look at ordinary people, and they see a disaster.