November 8, 2012 at 9:12 am EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Shadows of war

‘Dying City’
Signature Theatre
Through Nov. 25
4200 Campbell Ave.,
Arlington, VA

Dying City, Rachel Zampelli, Thomas Keegan, gay news, Washington Blade

Rachel Zampelli as Kelly and Thomas Keegan as Peter in ‘Dying City,’ a charged drama playing at Signature through Nov. 25. (Photo by Scott Suchman, courtesy Signature Theatre)

In gay playwright Christopher Shinn’s quietly compelling “Dying City” (now making its D.C. premier in a smart, effective production at Signature Theatre), a trio of young characters negotiate emotional battlefields in the shadow of the Iraq War.

Set in New York, far from Baghdad, the play begins with Kelly (an aptly reserved Rachel Zampelli) watching TV alone in her comfortable New York City apartment (compliments of set designer Daniel Conway) when suddenly she receives an unexpected and not wholly welcomed evening visitor. It’s Peter (Thomas Keegan), the identical twin brother of her late husband Craig, a Harvard graduate student who was killed the previous year during military service in Iraq. Kelly and Peter haven’t spoken since the funeral.

A successful Hollywood actor in town doing theater (O’Neill’s classic portrait of family dysfunction, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”), Peter is all ingratiating charm as he coaxes Kelly, a therapist, to talk about their shared loss. Guarded and at times visibly anguished, Kelly reluctantly enters into conversation. Together, they revisit the night before Craig’s departure for training camp in Georgia, the murky circumstances surrounding his death and their disparate backgrounds (Kelly’s rich parents were emotionally absent, the twins’ father was a violent Vietnam vet and their mother held ambitions for her sons to escape the confines of their modest Midwestern upbringing).

An intimate play, “Dying City” is ideal for the Ark, Signature’s smaller black box. The fast-paced drama’s action alternates between Peter and Kelly’s strained visit and flashback scenes involving Kelly and Craig (also played by brawny Keegan). This casting trick requires a lot of quick exits and entrances. Fortunately, gay director Matthew Gardiner’s shrewd staging along with Colin K. Bills’ lighting and Matt Rowe’s transporting sound design make time travel smooth and not the least bit hokey. By changing shirts and adding a little swagger, Keegan morphs from the more effusive, self-absorbed Peter to his butcher, more reticent straight brother Craig.

Slowly, Kelly becomes more comfortable. The in-laws are getting along. Conversation strays to backstage gossip and the latest on Peter’s tumultuous love life. But when Peter unexpectedly pulls out a cache of beautifully crafted emails sent to him from Craig while in Iraq, the intentions of Peter’s visit become suspect. While both Kelly and Peter have always dismissed the Iraq War as destructive and senseless adventure, the once pro-war Craig demonstrates in his eloquent missives that during the last days of his life, he joined the anti-war ranks with his brother and wife. Other revelatory passages (but less well-received by Kelly) come to light as well. Layers of truths and untruths, and who knew what when, are explored.

Since her husband’s death, Kelly spends a lot of time holed up at home watching TIVOed episodes of “Law and Order.” After seeing scores of episodes, she has figured out the secret to the cop show’s success: Kelly believes that people find comfort in the idea being remembered after their death. We like the notion that if we’re murdered, a team of detectives and forensic experts will convene to remember us and give closure. Nothing about Craig’s death has been neatly closed. And while Kelly’s future is uncertain, she seems to be getting stronger.

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