In Kelly's world, only two American military non-combat deaths have been recorded since the U.S. invasion of Iraq—one is that of her husband Craig, with all the others a dismal second. Such was the depth of her love for her man, whose roily nature fueled her intellect (she's a therapist) and her passion (she's an exceptionally beautiful young woman). The title of the play in which she's a character refers to Baghdad at its most violent, and she can only imagine the horrors behind this casualty at a time when so much of the fighting seemed to peak.
But Dying City, the current Cygnet Theatre production, is less about the war than about the forces that drive the principals. Playwright Christopher Shinn uses the setting to shed light on the characters' sketchy relationships with one another, not the least of which is Craig's disdain for Kelly as a romantic partner. A year earlier, he'd seen himself off to deployment from Fort Bening, shooting the devastated Kelly a long look of contempt—the central moment in a pretty darn good show about violence of a very different kind.
Ironically, Craig (Sean Cox) was an English lit grad student at Harvard before his bloodlust got the better of him. His twin brother Peter (Cox again), a semi-noted bed-hopping gay actor, had written Kelly (Christy Yael) an unanswered letter at the news of the death—and now, Peter shows up at Kelly's New York apartment a year later in order to make sense of the tragedy. Their cat-and-mouse banter reveals the troubled union between Kelly and Craig, she the victim of an emotionally bankrupt father and he the dutiful son of a macho Vietnam vet. Shinn draws the parallels deftly in this scant 90 minutes—and his background for Peter is a minor stroke of genius. Seems Pete once walked offstage during a performance of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, an American monument to family dysfunction, after a fellow actor took one too many potshots.
But Shinn also could have invested more in Peter. The character badgers his sister-in-law about her shaky past, and in one instance, he's damn cruel about it—yet he's a nicer guy than all that when he arrives at Kelly's door. And the piece might have been more effective if Craig's character were only inferred. There's plenty of animosity between Pete and Kel, and Craig's presence sometimes presumes we can't figure that out.
Beyond that, director Francis Gercke sees Shinn's war setting for what it is—a metaphor for the intimate, far deeper conflicts we often bear through daily life—and he's crafted the acting accordingly. His players play everything situationally, with Cox keeping a good lid on Peter's sexual orientation and Yael transitioning beautifully between the fire and ice that make up Kelly's being. I don't see why Nick Fouch found it necessary to rotate his good set several degrees to establish the flashbacks between Craig and Kelly—the direction alone is sufficient.
In any event, Dying City dutifully takes its cue from a wholly unjustified conflict and effectively filters it through the social and political forces that shape us. Weapons of war, it seems, aren't the only means by which to extinguish the human spirit.
This review is based on the evening performance of Sept. 28. Dying City runs through Oct. 26 at Cygnet Theatre's Rolando venue, 6663 El Cajon Blvd. $22-$48. 619-337-1525 or www.cygnettheatre.com.