‘Dying City’ Theater Review: Mary Elizabeth Winstead Juggles Twin Brothers

Christopher Shinn directs an uneven production of his own play set in a traumatized New York City during the Iraq War

What actor can resist the challenge of playing twins, one good and one bad? It’s the kind of acting stunt that Golden Age film stars liked to perform to prove their acting chops.

Christopher Shinn’s 2006 play “Dying City” offers a similar theatrical treat, one that’s slightly touchier to pull off in an era where the LGBTQIA umbrella now has more letters than a Times Square subway station. “Dying City” features the same actor playing the gay Craig, an actor currently starring in a Broadway revival of “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” as well as his straight twin Peter, a soldier being redeployed to action in the Iraq War. In other words, let the mannerisms fly.

Pablo Schreiber played Peter/Craig in the 2007 American premiere of “Dying City” at Lincoln Center Theater, and now it’s Colin Woodell (“The Originals”) playing the twins in a new revival that opened Monday at Second Stage’s Off Broadway Tony Kiser Theatre. In both performances, different but equally convincing, it’s intriguing to see just how mannered not only gays but straights can be when it comes to projecting their sexual orientation.

Being hyper, coupled with an eagerness to entertain, can be read as a gay mannerism. But then, Peter in “Dying City” has every reason to be high-strung: He’s meeting his former sister-in-law, Kelly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead of “Fargo”), for the first time after the funeral of his brother, who died in the Iraq War a year ago. Their get-together is awkward for any number of reasons that a review shouldn’t reveal but that include Kelly’s no longer having a telephone, forcing Peter to show up unannounced at her apartment after writing her a letter that she didn’t respond to. Plus, he’s currently performing in that Eugene O’Neill classic that Kelly has never bothered to see.

That’s basically the opening scene of “Dying City.” From there, the Craig character appears with Kelly in a number of flashbacks that center around a fateful evening when, on the eve of his departure for Iraq, the two brothers along with Kelly and Peter’s boyfriend get into an argument about the morality of the war. Talk about bad timing.

The defining light that Woodell’s performance throws on this soldier is just how contained some straight men feel they must be, how under wraps they keep their emotions — until something inside them explodes. It’s a trait that Woodell, and Schreiber before him, never reduces to a tic or a cliché.

Shinn directs this revival, and who can argue with how a writer wants to interpret his own play? In one important way, his work is flashier than James Macdonald’s direction of the 2007 production at Lincoln Center Theater. Pablo Schreiber and his co-star, Rebecca Brooksher, segued between the play’s many scenes with a minimum of fuss. The lighting changes were minimal; Brooksher didn’t even change her one costume despite the switches in time.

Shinn has chosen to give an ominous look and sound to these scene changes, as if there’s some kind of Jekyll and Hyde thing going on with Woodell’s performance. At Second Stage, the New York apartment (set design by Dane Laffrey) often goes pitch black between scene changes as a broad band of light is turned on to define a frame around the proscenium. In addition to the startling lighting effect (by Tyler Micoleau), there’s a rattlesnake sound design (by Bray Poor) to enhance the wow factor.

All this stagecraft gives the production a sense of movement, a movement that is lacking in Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance as Kelly. Her bio in the Playbill includes many film and TV credits but boldly announces that she is “making her theatre debut” here. (What, no theater in college or even high school?) Winstead isn’t incompetent or uncomfortable on stage, and she effectively conveys her therapist character’s intelligence. What’s missing is any development in the character from the time Peter awkwardly enters Kelly’s apartment to the time he leaves it 90 minutes later amid much emotional retribution.

Kelly clearly doesn’t want Peter there from the get-go. Rebecca Brooksher at LTC played against that motivation, emphasizing instead the character’s profession as a caregiver. Winstead’s immediate emotional detachment simply leaves Kelly marking time until the final blowout.

The twin brothers of “Dying City” share a less than healthy attitude toward sex. In one curious switch from the 2007 production, Shinn moves what was a fairly violent sex scene between Kelly and Craig at LCT entirely off stage.

The “Dying City” title refers to both Baghdad and New York City after 9/11. The war references still resonate, while those regarding the terrorist attack on the city now seem forced, as if Shinn were attempting to give his fine play (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) another layer of significance that it doesn’t need.

Shinn purposefully leaves a tantalizing hole in the middle of his play. What exactly happened on the eve of Craig’s redeployment that so alienated Peter from Kelly that she demanded he not spend the night in her apartment? Gay and straight mannerisms aside, the two brothers may have been even more identical than anyone, especially Kelly, ever imagined.