Cast in the dual roles of twin brothers in Christopher Shinn's anguished, riveting drama Dying City (at Lincoln Center's Newhouse Theatre through Apr. 29), Tony-nominated actor Pablo Schreiber did some very important primary research.
"I watched Raising Cain," says Schreiber from his dressing room before a performance, referring to the 1992 potboiler featuring an over-the-top Jekyll/Hyde turn by John Lithgow. Schreiber's verdict? "It was really campy; it didn't help me at all."
And though Schreiber says he admired Dead Ringers--David Cronenberg's unsettling gynecological thriller from 1988, with Jeremy Irons as a disturbed pair of twins--he ultimately found that such Netflix-assisted research was not a reliable shortcut.
"Nothing helped me to play these twins," Schreiber admits. "You go looking for these miracles, but in the end you have to do the work yourself and find your own answers."
Shinn's Dying City tells a deceptively simple but painstakingly layered story about a troubled Iraq war veteran, Craig; his distraught therapist wife, Kelly (played by Rebecca Brookhiser); and Craig's twin brother, a gay actor named Peter. Schreiber plays both the emotionally shut-down Craig and the chatty Peter in pointedly separate time frames, as the play gradually pieces together this sharp-edged, three-sided puzzle.
"When I first read the script, I was struck by these two words: need and control," says Schreiber. "Those are the two opposing forces in the play, and those are the two ways Craig and Peter have dealt with a traumatic childhood."
Raised by a Vietnam vet father with a drinking problem, Peter and Craig don't simply absorb their childhood trauma; they manage to pass it on to Kelly--and to the audience.
"One of the good things we're dealing with in this play is a certain level of uncomfort," Schreiber says. "I think it should feel a little like you've been at war to watch it. One of play's biggest themes is how comfortable we've become with violence--that we can sit and have these images of violence in front of us, the destitution of other countries. It's really uncomfortable to look in the face of the shame we're causing."
Ironically, Schreiber says he finds this play less emotionally taxing than the show that marked his Broadway debut, Awake and Sing, for which he received a Tony nomination.
"That's been surprising," Schreiber says, comparing the two experiences. "Awake and Sing was a lot harder to come down from, I think because the character of Ralph was so innocent, and the level of honesty I had to bring to that took a lot of energy." The messed-up brothers of Dying City, by contrast, "have so much armor, and they do so much shifting and lying throughout the play, that it's like putting on these masks for a few hours. Once it's done, I can take them off and go home."
If the audience has a harder time shaking off the play's emotional impact, that's just as it should be, Schreiber says.
"The playwright, Chris Shinn, has said a few times that no matter what, the truth should always come out, no matter how painful," Schreiber says. "And that's one of the main reasons I'm doing this play. Even though we can and do go about our days as usual, these are sad times. Horrible crimes are being committed in our name, and to not dwell on that to some extent is a shame."