In like Shinn
A rising playwright gets a belated second bow in Chicago.
In 1998, when Christopher Shinn was just 23, his play Four—about a quartet of people looking for anonymous hookups on the Fourth of July—was produced by London’s Royal Court Theatre. Since then, five more of his ten produced works have played London before being picked up stateside. (Each, not coincidentally, was an engaging, canny criticism of American life.)
At the time, Shinn was just happy to see one of his plays produced. “Nobody would do any of my plays, even as an undergrad at NYU,” says the 33-year-old Hartford, Connecticut, native. “I never got selected for the festivals. Even the ten-minute plays. Four was a play I wrote when I was 20 that got rejected at NYU two years in a row.”
As for why London first picked up on his talents, Shinn thinks theatergoers there have an affinity for his favored themes. “They have a tradition of writers who combine the psychological with the social, the political. People like Edward Bond, Caryl Churchill, Harold Pinter, David Hare,” the playwright says by phone from his New York home. “Not that I think I’m like any of those writers. But I’m in that tradition, exploring how the social and political impact the psychological reality of characters.”
Most Chicagoans are still unfamiliar with Shinn’s work, even though he marked another career milestone here: In 1999, About Face Theatre staged the U.S. premiere of Four. “That was actually the first production I got in the United States. That was it [in Chicago], though. From 1999 to 2009, zip,” he says, laughing.
Shinn makes a long-overdue return to the Chicago scene with Next Theatre’s production of Dying City. A two-actor, three-character drama depicting the effects of the Iraq War on loved ones left behind, it was a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer following productions at the Royal Court and Lincoln Center Theater. (A little play called August: Osage County took the prize. Like Shinn, Tracy Letts found widespread London acclaim with dark-side-of-the-dream plays, such as Killer Joe and Bug, before mainstream American theaters were ready for him.)
While it traffics in the ways we process our country’s involvement in a war abroad, Dying City doesn’t proclaim itself an Iraq War Play. Kelly, a young therapist, is visited at her NYC loft by Peter, the identical twin brother of her husband, Craig, a year after Craig’s death on active duty. Scenes from the present blend with flashbacks to Craig’s last night before deployment to reveal secrets about the family’s interpersonal relationships. As with much of Shinn’s work, there’s equal heft to what’s unsaid and what’s spoken aloud. “It mines the ambivalence and wealth of conflicting emotions that the war stirs up but uses that to explore a very moving, personal domestic drama,” says Tony-winning actor Michael Cerveris, who counts himself among Dying City’s fans.
Cerveris now stars opposite Mary-Louise Parker in Shinn’s Broadway debut, a new, modern adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. (That Roundabout production opened last week to mostly poor reviews, though there was praise for Shinn’s script.)
“It has a very clever, very theatrical conceit at its center that’s exciting and satisfying for audiences,” Cerveris says of Dying City’s use of one actor to play both twins, “but it is far from a one-trick play. The woman’s character is really rich and complex—not something that a lot of younger male playwrights seem interested in or capable of.”
“It’s a play about unearthing trauma,” Shinn says of Dying City. “I was really interested in sexuality and the way it becomes linked to death, to rage and drama. I was really impacted by [the images from] Abu Ghraib, which happened right around the time I was conceiving the play,” he continues.
A few minutes later, the playwright—who casually drops into conversation that he spends five days a week in psychoanalysis—amends that thought. “I think in retrospect I was working through my own failed relationships from the past, feelings of being betrayed and of betraying.” Alluding to a plot point in Dying City, he says, “I realized I had kept all of these letters to and from ex-boyfriends, people who turned out to be really cruel and horrible. I threw them out during the writing of the play, erased all vestiges of these traumatic relationships.”
Now that Shinn is finally catching on stateside, hopefully his relationships with American theaters won’t be the traumatic kind that need to be erased.
Dying City opens Monday 9 at Next Theatre.