Rebecca Brooksher and Pablo Schreiber in Dying City
(© Joan Marcus)
Rebecca Brooksher and Pablo Schreiber in Dying City
(© Joan Marcus)
The war in Iraq. The uses and abuses of antidepressants. The mindset of identical twins. America's obsession with food. The reason why Law & Order has stayed on the air for 14 years. All these topics and more are discussed in a mere 90 minutes in Christopher Shinn's engrossing new play, Dying City, at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater, which is being given a top-notch production by James Macdonald.

But if there's a small problem with the play, it's that only rarely do these subjects, no matter how intelligently or cleverly Shinn tackles them, seem completely organic to the primary tale at hand. The larger problem is that Shinn has essentially written a two-pronged whydunit, with only one why definitively answered.

A year after his twin brother Craig's somewhat mysterious death while serving in Iraq, Peter (Pablo Schreiber), a semi-famous gay actor, manages to reestablish contact with his sister-in-law Kelly (Rebecca Brooksher) by simply showing up on her doorstep. (The modest apartment, created by set designer Anthony Ward of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang fame, is dominated by a large, sparsely furnished living room on a raised platform in the middle of the Newhouse, which has returned to true in-the-round seating.)

As we quickly discover, Peter has not only tried to call Kelly -- a therapist -- he's even written her a letter with a rather shocking request. But she has ignored all his entreaties, even initially feigning ignorance that Peter is living in New York City. The complexity of their relationship -- and more importantly, the deeply troubled relationship between Kelly and the volatile Craig -- eventually come to the fore in a series of two-handed scenes, each one adding a tidbit or two of new information to the scenario at hand.

In Shinn's well-crafted structure, the scenes between Kelly and Peter alternate with the ones between Kelly and Craig (also played by Schreiber), set a year earlier on the night before he ships off for Fort Bening. Shinn engineers a few simple reasons for Peter to leave the living room, such as making a phone call or using the bathroom, in order to have Schreiber reemerge -- in a different shirt and shoes -- as Craig. The device, if a little tired, is still fairly effective.

Unfortunately, by the play's end, some audience members may feel like they've spent 90 minutes putting together an elaborate jigsaw puzzle only to discover the box is missing a few crucial pieces. While there are many plausible reasons why Peter takes the actions he does -- and one seems particularly cruel -- Shinn never makes Peter's motivation entirely clear.

It's one thing to initially paint Peter as a nice-but-messed-up guy -- we discover he's walked off stage in the middle of his Broadway performance of Long Day's Journey Into Night after a co-star makes a cruel remark and habitually cheats on his longtime lover -- but at the crucial moment his true colors are revealed, I think some shift into a deeper character should be in evidence.

To his credit, the mucho muscular Schreiber delineates each brother quite well without ever overplaying Peter's gayness. Still, his most affecting and believable moments come as the decidedly macho and clearly unhappy Craig. If Schreiber is not yet in the same acting league as half-brother Liev, he's definitely an actor to keep one's eyes on.

Yet, the strongest reason to see Dying City is to watch the relatively unknown Brooksher at work. She gives a remarkably controlled performance as Kelly, icy one minute, melting the next. More impressively, she makes Kelly so extraordinarily vulnerable, so obviously in pain, that you forgive the fact that for a therapist, she doesn't seem to have the strongest handle on human behavior. Indeed, when she's about to learn the worst -- through Peter's revelation of an email written to him by Craig -- one's instinct is to rush onstage and tear up the paper.

In case you're wondering, the dying city of the title is explicitly explained as Baghdad; although with the play's numerous references to 9-11, one suspects Shinn means to apply the moniker to New York as well. Either way, the work should be more accurately titled, in reference to another of Shinn's plays, What Did Happen.