The challenges of portraying a set of twins in the same play are numerous. You’ve got the obvious differentiation obstacles, of course—something that a role-doubling Dromio or Antipholus in Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” won’t confront. But there’s also the challenge of sameness, particularly if the twins in question somehow have to speak to or about each other, helping to educate the audience about who the other person is. Unless the purpose is farce, this can’t be quick-change gimmickry. John Glover won a well-deserved Tony Award in 1995 for playing twins—one rotten, one kind—in Terrence McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” and he had an all-star cast surrounding him. Burt Grinstead, single-handedly two-thirds of the L.A. premiere of “Dying City,” had Laurie Okin and the contents of his own very considerable toolbox.
The latter is well-stacked. Grinstead is golden-boy handsome, a fact noted early on by Peter, the gay actor who walks out of a production of O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and into the life of his widowed sister-in-law, Kelly (Okin). Between his fractured relationships, inappropriate trysts, and the emotional heft of a stack of printed-out emails he’s carrying in a satchel, Peter has nearly bottomed out. But he knows his beauty helps. With that crooked smile and an Adonis physique, Peter is accustomed to getting what he wants: a prized role, a place to sleep, a Get Out of Jail Free card from screwups. None of these will work with Kelly, but Peter doesn’t figure this out until the climax of “Dying City.”
Until he does, Peter hijacks Kelly’s dark night of the soul and makes it about him—his problems, his choices, his needs, the secrets that he can reveal. Whether this is done out of clueless narcissism or something much more sinister, Grinstead never entirely lets on, and that’s part of what makes his work so fascinating. The actor’s considerable charisma, sad eyes, and carefully considered replies work in his favor. We witness both in the present and in flashback that Peter has a bit of a history of trailing discord, not always of his own creation.
Whenever Peter retreats to a back bedroom, Craig reappears in flashbacks from two years ago. Switched clothing notwithstanding, there is no difficulty telling these two very different brothers apart. We learn at the play’s outset that Craig has died in Iraq in an accident that Peter thinks might have been suicide. When he appears in flashback, Grinstead’s Craig is a bottled-up cauldron of conflicts, afraid to make love to his wife—which he tries violently and unsuccessfully to do—and afraid to admit that he no longer loves her. Until, with shattering directness and no feeling-sparing equivocation, he finally does.
The play is set post-9/11, and Craig’s experiences in the service have forced him to undergo a transformation—of belief, of ethics, of his very identity. Consequently, the man who stands before her, the man in uniform who is about to leave her for what will prove to be the last time, is probably no longer the man Kelly fell in love with. Kelly is a psychoanalyst, and given Okin’s quiet and unflappable demeanor, there’s every indication she’s quite good at her job. But she misses her husband’s distress signals. Or overlooks them. Peter’s unexpected and unwelcome visit triggers the memory, permitting Kelly to confront some pretty awful truths.
Of course, Peter helps this realization along. On the verge of being thrown out of the apartment—and probably out of Kelly’s life—Peter plays his last card: the confessional emails from his dead brother that he first tries to read aloud to Kelly and then leaves behind for her to peruse or shred as she sees fit. His charm no longer a passkey, Peter hardens ever so slightly, and Grinstead shows us that to Peter, the left-behind letters are an act of malevolence, not a mercy.
With that, he’s off, potentially to wreak more havoc, a serpent disguised as a peacock. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
Evan Henerson is a Los Angeles–based arts and entertainment writer and critic. He is the former theater critic for the Los Angeles Daily News.