NEW YORK -- The huddled tenements of Manhattan's Lower East Side are cramped enough, but when conversation turns to politics they can get downright claustrophobic.
Adjacent apartments of two young neighbors - one a gay white man, the other a straight black man - fill the stage at off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre. They serve as an analogous setting for Christopher Shinn's honest and insightful play "Where Do We Live," which opened Tuesday.
The up-and-coming playwright's cerebral narrative, which first appeared in 2002 at London's Royal Court Theatre, examines the pain and frustration of clashing ideologies when thrust together by circumstance. Shinn wrote the play - and set it in the summer and fall of 2001, a time of obvious political invigoration and emotional self-awareness, particularly for New Yorkers.
But the baggage of Sept. 11 is only one of the play's many subjects of debate and introspection, which include friendship, love, sex, music, money, race, homophobia and the welfare system.
Shinn's conscience seems to address these topics through Stephen, the white neighbor played by the likable Luke MacFarlane. Stephen struggles against the apathy of his boyfriend Tyler (Jacob Pitts), the insensitivity of Tyler's best friend Billy (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and the arrogance of two young businessmen at a neighborhood bar.
He also tries to reconcile his own idealism with the unfortunate reality of his black neighbor Shed (Burl Moseley) and Shed's down-and-out uncle, Timothy (Daryl Edwards). Timothy is jobless and dependent on his nephew after losing a leg in a car accident that left his wife dead. Besides the burden of his disability, Timothy bears the regret that he was drinking and behind the wheel on the night of the accident.
Despite the play's weighty subjects, bleak realism and sometimes slow-moving action, it remains engaging throughout thanks to the uniqueness of its characters and the sincerity of its script. With help from a strong cast, Shinn's characters seem to have been grown organically rather than carved from the stereotypical molds we see so often in New York stories.
There is Shed's friend, Lily, a young, sexually promiscuous British woman with a catchy cell-phone ring - played with comic pizazz by Liz Stauber. And Aaron Stanford turns in a good performance as Dave, Shed's mixed-up friend and the object of Lily's lust.
Shinn, who also wrote "Four," "Other People" and "What Didn't Happen," makes a successful directorial debut. The play runs nearly two hours with no intermission but progresses fluidly. It also benefits from an interesting and homey set of exposed brick and cheap furniture.
"Where Do We Live" presents some heady arguments and fierce conviction but somehow stays away from being too preachy. It's fitting that the play's title asks a question (though written without a question mark), because it doesn't pretend to have any answers.
But it is that sense of humility that makes this piece endearing. Rather than trying to prove the validity of any position, it takes a close look at how people with disparate sensibilities coexist and interact when they're forced to.
It's not always graceful, but so often necessary.
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