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Manbites Dog Theater Company demonstrates once again, with its current production of Dying City, that we are living in a great age for theater — a great age for new plays, and a great age and place for their presentation, with some extraordinarily talented theater artists ready, willing and able to do the work.
A soldier who dies in Iraq, his wife/widow, and his twin brother are the characters in Christopher Shinn’s recent play, directed here by Manbites Dog artistic director Jeff Storer, who deftly creates poignant emotional intimacy on stage. Even in an all-talk play like this, he also keeps a sense of movement, of life, going as well. Here, it is as if all the world and its lies and dangers and hurts come in and out of this small New York apartment. The very smart script, with its multiple investigations into different forms of truth and their representations, is also emotionally harrowing. When I stumbled out of the theater after the uninterrupted one hour and 15 minute show, my first coherent thought was — how do the actors do this every night?
I don’t know how they do it, but these particular actors, Jay O’Berski and Dana Marks, raise the bar for themselves with every production. Marks, and her alter ego, Mark Sadan, played two very different roles in the recent Europe Central, which O’Berski directed. Here, he plays Peter, the twin brother of the dead soldier, and — in flashback scenes — the brother, Craig, himself, as his wife Kelly recalls their last night together. The two men are fully delineated — no confusion about which twin you are looking at — and Kelly’s responses to them are entirely different. The acting is excellent.
I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns by spelling out the sequence of the story, because anyone interested either in current issues or in the possibility of truth-finding between humans will want to see this play unforewarned. Dying City is the kind of art that is more work than entertainment. It has laugh-out-loud lines; but their humor is stringent, even bitter, the better to mix with the pathos and rage. Whether you believe in theater as a clarifying lens through which to view humanity, or as a form of political action, this play has something for you.
Its power comes partly from its strong stage design, with its audio and video components. The video and sound design are by Daniel Avissar, on his first Manbites Dog project; and his canny crafting of TV segments as a kind of background for the action add immensely to its impact. Sets and costumes are by the multitalented Derrick Ivey, star of stage and backstage in innumerable Triangle productions over the years. My astute companion noticed that Ivey’s set design, a living room with the New York skyline out the windows, is remarkably similar to that of Alfred Hitchcock’s experimental 1948 film Rope (see François Truffaut’s book Hitchcock for photos and discussion), and that there are things in the script that seem to refer to that same Hitchcockian vision. Looking into the apartment, watching a drama one is unable to affect, was more like Hitchcock’s Rear Window. In Dying City, the tension mounts, the fear increases — but there’s no Grace Kelly to make it all okay. There is only Kelly, widowed and betrayed, left to survive among the ruins of her beliefs, and to make us wonder whether we actually want to know the truth about much of anything.
Manbites Dog Theater presents Dying City Wednesday-Saturday, Feb. 27-March 1, at 8:15 p.m.; Sunday, March 2, at 3:15 p.m.; and Wednesday-Saturday March 5-8, at 8:15 p.m. at 703 Foster St., Durham , North Carolina. $12 Wednesday/Thursday and $17 Friday-Sunday, except pay-what-you-can preview on Feb. 21st ($5 minimum, door sales only). 919/682-3343 or http://www.tix.com/Schedule.asp?OrganizationNumber=150. Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/. Christopher Shinn: http://www.christophershinn.com/.