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'Dying City' Flops As A Good Production Of A Disappointing Play

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It sometimes happens as a critic that you'll see a show that's been favorably reviewed, given awards or is simply a hit and wonder afterwards what all the praise was about. Seeing Dying City in Rogue Machine's West Coast premiere is one of those times, unfortunately. I've admired Rogue Machine for years, and the actors in this production are both very good, but Christopher Shinn's Pulitzer Prize finalist play didn't come together as compelling theatre for me.

In 2005 Manhattan, Iraq War widow Kelly (Laurie Okin) gets an unexpected visitor at her apartment. It's Peter (Burt Grinstead), the twin brother of her late husband Craig. They haven't seen each other since Craig committed suicide a year ago, and their conversation is initially tentative. Peter, who's acting in a play, has just walked offstage in the middle of the show due to a gay slur and seems to be looking for some of the therapy that is Kelly's day job. Kelly, thrown by Peter's arrival, keeps remembering Craig's last night with her before he went back to Iraq. What she doesn't know is that both men have surprises for her.

Grinstead is impressive in his dual roles—even though the costume changes are minimal, he seems like two completely different actors. As Peter he's diffident and self-deprecating, while as Craig he's confrontational and seemingly stable. These are skilled and subtle performances. Okin is also strong as Kelly, but she has the added challenge of the fact that her character is always acted upon, the victim of the twins' neuroses. As written, the character internalizes these things happening to her, but her own motivations are less fleshed out, which makes for a somewhat unbalanced play.

Michael Peretzian's direction is professional, and Tom Buderwitz's small apartment set is convincing, but they're in the service of a disappointing play. First of several problems, the twin aspect of the plot ends up being nothing more than a stunt, an opportunity for a good actor to show some range. It gets positively ridiculous how many times the characters find an excuse to walk offstage to change costumes, and this stops the forward motion of the story each time as the audience waits. If Shinn intended this as a message play, the message is unclear, and if it's attempting to simply be a dramatic study of behavior between three people, it fails to convince. Apart from that, plot twists are dropped in with no prior motivation, such as one character suddenly wanting to have a child, and these are never resolved or referred to again, which just seems like sloppy playwriting.

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"Dying City" plays at Rogue Machine through July 8. Tickets are available online.