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November 24th, 2010 BEN WATERHOUSE | Theater
 

Dying City (Portland Playhouse)

The passive-aggressive autopsy of a warrior.

     
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It is a year after the death, and Kelly is boxing up her books while watching Law & Order. The doorbell buzzes. She blanches. Then the television responds: chung CHUNG!

From the outset, Christopher Shinn’s Dying City, directed here by Brian Weaver, echoes the familiar form of a whodunit. There is a corpse (Craig, a Faulkner scholar and Army reservist, dead in Iraq), a survivor (Kelly, his wife of two years), an investigator (Craig’s twin brother, Peter, an actor) and a slew of unanswered questions. But as the circumstances surrounding Craig’s demise are gradually revealed, we are left with deeper, more distressing mysteries that will follow us, nagging, into the night. Shinn’s subject is not death so much as psychological violence.

The man at the buzzer is Peter, who has arrived, unannounced, with unclear intentions. A master of passive aggression, he really wants Kelly to read a sheaf of emails his brother sent him from Iraq; emails, he believes, that explain how he died. What follows is a tense 90 minutes of conversational judo, interspersed with flashbacks to Craig’s last night at home. There is one obnoxious gimmick: The brothers are both played by one actor, Wade McCollum, with many costume changes.

The stunt doesn’t do much to serve the story. The relationship between Peter and Craig, full of mutual admiration and scorn, is nothing unique to twins. It would be a hell of a lot easier on the cast if there were three actors, and the script would probably be more satisfying if Craig never appeared at all. McCollum pulls off the trick fairly well, though his performance is marred by the unsubtle gesturing he brings to many of his roles. As Peter he is twitchy, self-obsessed and obliquely cruel; as Craig he seethes with barely restrained violence, but overdoes the virile swagger. In both cases he is outperformed by Cristi Miles as Kelly, who completely inhabits the role of the damaged, grieving therapist, robbed of husband and motherhood by an apparent accident. She ably conveys the effort Kelly has spent crafting a façade of stability, and the shock of having it abruptly dismantled.


SEE IT: The Church, 602 NE Prescott St., 205-0715. 8 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays through Nov. 28; 9 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 4 pm Sundays, Dec. 1-12. No show Thanksgiving Day or Dec. 9. Closes Dec. 12. $12-$21.
 
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