Luke MacFarlane and Jacob Pittsin Where Do We Live(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Luke MacFarlane and Jacob Pitts
in Where Do We Live
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Christopher Shinn knows how to be provocative -- and I'm not even talking about the onstage handjobs, bareback sex, and abundant drug use within the writer-director's Where Do We Live. No, it's the ideas and character interactions in his play, set in New York City during the months of August through October 2001, that make you stop and think. Yes, those dates are inclusive of September 11, 2001 and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center figures heavily in the play's final scenes. But the lives of the central characters are in disarray long before then.

Where Do We Live focuses primarily on two men who live in the same building but in almost completely separate worlds. Stephen (Luke MacFarlane) is a gay white male, a writer, and a liberal -- not necessarily in that order. He has a gay white male boyfriend named Tyler (Jacob Pitts) who lives off a trust fund and is an aspiring actor. Residing in a neighboring apartment are Shed (Burl Moseley), a young heterosexual African-American who's dealing drugs but is trying to find a more legitimate line of work. He lives with his disabled uncle Timothy (Daryl Edwards), whom he seems to detest, and he has befriended Lily (Liz Stauber), the British girlfriend of his supplier, Dave (Aaron Stanford).

Stephen has gotten into the habit of giving Timothy cigarettes and even loaning him money; this upsets Tyler, who warns his boyfriend against becoming too much of a pushover and tells him that the elderly black man is only going to use the money to buy alcohol. Stephen points out that he and his boyfriend both drink and that, at the moment of their conversation, Tyler is high on ecstasy. There's a double standard that positions the white men of the play as indulgers in harmless recreation while the African-Americans are perceived in a more negative light for very similar behavior.

This underlying theme of structural racism is complicated further with the introduction of Leo (Aaron Yoo), a gay Asian man who goes to the same club as the two gay white men. He tries to pick up Stephen, who only mutters vague responses without ever looking at Leo. "I don't know why I keep coming here," says Leo to an unresponsive Stephen. "I have no access. I'm totally ignored."

For all of his liberal posturing, Stephen has his own narrow ways of seeing the world. Another scene, set at a party in his apartment, demonstrates this even more: He gets into a heated argument with Tyler's friend Billy (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) about welfare. Billy grew up poor and his father worked two jobs, so he's adamantly against a system that would keep people on government support indefinitely. Stephen, who grew up as a member of the upper middle class, asks: "Did you ever think it was easier for them [Billy's parents] because they're white?" This causes Billy to explode in rage, claiming that Stephen knows nothing about his life and the anti-Semitism that his family faced.

Not all of the play's provocative moments center on race, class, and sexuality. For example, Shed's relationship with his uncle is very complex. The apartment belongs to Timothy and he and his now-deceased wife seem to have taken in the young man at some point. But with Timothy unable to work because of his disability, Shed has grown to resent the older man and perhaps even blame him -- not without cause -- for the death of his aunt. The question is: What holds this family together?

Shinn has put together a fine ensemble cast of nine actors, some of whom play multiple roles, to gamely explore the volatile issues in the play. But Where Do We Live is no simplistic piece of agitprop. All of the characters are flawed, and the audience's sympathies shift depending upon who does what to whom. MacFarlane deftly communicates a quiet sort of arrogance that allows Stephen to see himself as always in the right and to be oblivious to the ways in which he hurts those around him. He and Pitts have a nice onstage chemistry and a level of physical comfort with each other that makes their relationship believable.

Liz Stauber and Burl Moseley in Where Do We Live(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Liz Stauber and Burl Moseley in Where Do We Live
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Moseley is also convincing as an average guy who acts out his own insecurities through passive aggressive behavior, whether pumping up the volume on a song with homophobic lyrics so that his neighbor can hear it or getting involved with his supplier's girlfriend behind his back. As Lily, Stauber provides needed comic relief and is absolutely brilliant in the aforementioned handjob scene; still, her character remains somewhat of a cipher.

In his initial appearance, Yoo tries too hard, but a later scene that takes place in a bedroom allows him to do much subtler character work and he achieves a powerful poignancy. The rest of the cast members handle their roles well and Ferguson is particularly good as Billy; his portrayal at first seems like a stereotype but the actor gives the character an edge that demonstrates a greater complexity.

Rachel Hauck's set design is dominated by the two neighboring apartments, with set pieces added to shift locations to a museum, a bar, etc. However, these set pieces only suggest locales; the apartments are always visible. At times, Shinn stages scenes simultaneously with the focus shifting back and forth; the actors continue to move and interact even when the light is not on them. While this is effective at times, it doesn't always work. For example, one scene has Stephen and Tyler passionately making out, stripping each other's clothes off with a sense of urgency, and then the lights change to focus on what's going on at Shed and Timothy's place. Stephen and Tyler continue making out for a while but, because of the length of the scene in the neighboring apartment, they eventually switch to quietly hugging and caressing each other; then, when the lights shift back to Stephen's apartment, they start going at it with renewed vigor. It's an awkward sequence.

The play runs nearly two hours with no intermission and it does drag at certain points but, overall, the production is consistently entertaining and intellectually stimulating. Christopher Shinn is one of the most promising young playwrights to emerge in recent years and Where Do We Live is more ambitious than such previous Shinn efforts as Four and What Didn't Happen; it demonstrates his growth as a playwright as well as his continued engagement with the complexities of race, class, and sexuality.