Red Ryder is well known for their professional and often award-winning productions. Dying City represents a step away from their usual direction - ensemble cast, black comedies - to a dark and complex two-hander, set in post 9/11 New York.
This production is a clear example of a sophisticated theatre company working with a not so sophisticated script, which, in and of itself, makes for interesting theatre. In Dying City, American playwright Christopher Shinn (winner of an OBIE in Playwriting, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in Playwriting) explores both the individual and global consequences of trauma, depravity, and the effects of power and greed.
The problems with the script lay not in its content or dialogue, but with the contrived plot-line and some of the unnecessary details about characters and their histories. One of the main problems is the fact that one actor plays two characters; twins, to be precise. This ends up feeling like a structural gimmick and, ultimately, hinders the pace of the play rather than generating the depth and sense of revelation intended. Another problem is that there’s a little too much faux intellectualizing going on that doesn’t befit the characters or move the plot along.
As I watched the first half of Dying City unfold, I was reminded of the recent Downstairs at the Maj production of The Mercy Seat, another two-hander set in New York, post 9/11, with a sting-in-the-tail sort of ending. There, as here, you have to wait a while for the revelations to start to roll into the action, and this is where Red Ryder shines – the terrific set, sound design, and the acting carry the play across what could have been a tedious wait.
The play begins with Kelly (Alison van Reeken) watching a Law and Order re-run in her conspicuously sparse New York apartment. Since the death of her husband, Craig (Benj D’Addario), while on military duty in Iraq, she has mostly hidden herself away there. In the course of her lengthy addiction to Law and Order, she’s fashioned a theory that in each episode "the mystery of a death is solved and therefore symbolically reversed". Things are not so neat in her own life of course, and it’s within this context that Shinn examines a culture where violence (whether it’s in the ‘dying city’ of Baghdad, or in the form of domestic abuse) underwrites feelings of superiority and power. Violence on a global scale is the backdrop for the intriguing battle between Kelly and her brother-in-law, the almost-famous, gay, licentious actor Peter (also played by D’Addario). A year after his brother’s funeral, Peter turns up unannounced on Kelly’s doorstep.
As Kelly, van Reeken delivers a complex and angular portrayal of a woman (herself a therapist) who finds some small closure in her eventual acknowledgement that she’s been the victim of abuse. Van Reeken is a power house in this play. She holds back and holds back until we truly see the essence of a character desperately hanging on to a thin veneer of control. The intrusion of her narcissistic and self-absorbed brother-in-law, who seems to have questionable motives for wanting to see her again, begins to break her apart; the tense and darkly mysterious relationship created between the two characters is wonderful to watch.
D’Addario plays Peter with an insightful depth, and he deals with the task of continuously going offstage and coming back as the other twin with incredible ease and skill. Nevertheless there are, unfortunately, only so many times a character can go offstage to answer a mobile phone before an audience sees through the plot device and gets annoyed with it. Craig could easily have been created as a character who’s referred to, rather than physically present, in the play. Despite the fact that one twin is written with less depth than the other, D’Addario manages to produce two highly convincing performances.
The set design creates an extremely intimate feeling, which works to keep the audience close to the tension. The well-chosen pieces of furniture, the floorboards, and the stylistic kitchen window create a strong sense of place. Kingsley Reeve’s sound design adds to this sense and the just-there sound of wind was a stroke of genius. Unfortunately, due to the small space, the audience is at times a touch too close, and when the two characters move to the opposite ends of the stage, you start to feel like you’re watching a tennis match.
Dying City has a cracker of an ending. This is a dark play with some dark themes. It’s wordy and static and likely to provoke a strong reaction. And some of the unanswered questions that arise throughout the play stick with you long after you leave the theatre and go home. I urge you to see it.
The Blue Room and Red Ryder Productions present
by Christopher Shinn
Venue: The Blue Room Theatre, 53 James St, Northbridge.
Season: 16 October – 1 November
Times: 8pm Tuesday – Saturday
Bookings: 9227 7005 / www.blueroom.org.au