So Much Has Changed?

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

To appreciate Christopher Shinn's play Dying City at Rogue Machine Theatre you have to buy in to it's formal conceit and you have to go back to the Bush years.

Okay, I know most of you don't want to go back - but remember, for a moment, the terrible need the American theater had for post 9/11 war plays. There was the continual question "where are the plays speaking to this moment? Dealing with this crisis?" Sure, there was the strangely prescient Homebody Kabul by Tony Kushner, who seemed to once again 'get it' before the rest of us, but really the American theater was for several years stymied by the distant wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. Like so much of America, playwrights couldn't seem to find the words. Combine this with Bush's re-election in 2004 and you have a sense of the milieu Christopher Shinn's 2007 play was entering. Into this drought, any theatrical mention of the wars was embraced almost reflexively.

I'll leave it to Left, Right and Center to debate how much has changed politically since 2007, theatrically though the landscape is much different. While not quite a glut, the theater's caught up. So Dying City no longer enjoys the Bush Presidency as a foil or an audience with quite the same appetite.

Dying City revolves around the apparent suicide of an American soldier in Iraq. It takes place in a New York city apartment both before and after his death. I won't go into the plot because that'll spoil the play's conceit. Suffice it to say that it opens with the soldier's wife watching Law and Order, which gives you the first clue to the play's mechanics. Mr. Shinn is constructing a mystery of sorts, not a crime drama, but he's engaging the audience to put together the pieces, to puzzle out the connections. We spend the first minutes trying to sort out: Who are these two people? How are they connected? The writing provides little clues, intentionally ambiguous, to draw us in.

Across the play's 90 minutes, we jump back and forth through time and between characters. The first couple of shifts are thrilling and clever. Just as you've gotten your bearings, Mr. Shinn flips the perspective. But like the political landscape, once you get the trick the magic fades. After the third or fourth reversal, what seemed so clever begins to feel contrived. That's where the play's politics and formal structure converge - time.

The reason to see the play and Rogue Machine's work is for the acting. As a company, they're building a reputation, especially in their small theater, for doing visceral, character driven plays that are beautifully cast and directed. They've embraced the intimacy of the space and are crafting a consistent aesthetic.

While that sounds like a common sense way to build an audience - it's disturbingly rare in Los Angeles and something to celebrate.

Dying City plays at Rogue Machine Theatre on Pico Boulevard through July 8.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain

on LA Theater for KCRW.


Run time: 90 minutes

Banner imge: (L-R) Laurie Okin and Burt Grinstead in Dying City. Photo: John Flynn