The title of Christopher Shinn’s impressive new play, Where Do We Live, omits its implicit question mark. Yet audience members attuned to the author’s nuanced observations of American society in the fateful late summer and early fall of 2001 may be inclined to read the title as though it carried an exclamation point. It’s not that Shinn has written an anti-American screed. A true playwright (and therefore no ideologue), he merely throws our conduct into sharp relief, damning us with our own ridiculous details. Where Do We Live is not only the best in the recent series of works dealing with the 9-11 watershed; it is, in its accumulation of epiphanies, a startlingly accurate theatrical appraisal of the way we live now—a now that has many of us recoiling in the same dismay shared by Shinn’s increasingly alienated protagonists.
That’s right: protagonists. Stephen (Luke MacFarlane) is a gay, white writer dabbling in the New York club scene with his pretty (and often coked-up) new boyfriend, Billy (Jesse Tyler Ferguson); Shed (Burl Moseley) is a black drug dealer living with his Uncle Timothy (Daryl Edwards), who recently lost a leg while driving drunk. Though the two young men live next door to each other in the same Lower East Side building, they couldn’t occupy more divergent social realities. What’s curious, however, is the way their lives run in uncanny parallel. Riding the general trends of frenetic distraction and narcissistic longing, Stephen and Shed cannot (despite their ease in getting laid and wasted) reconcile themselves to the emptiness surrounding them.
The action proceeds in the manner of a short story, with scenes unfolding not in large dramatic gusts but in the characters’ subtle shifts of self-awareness. Admittedly, the pace can feel sluggish, though the play repays patience with complex insight into our peculiar modern psychopathology. Take, for instance, the comically horrific multitasking of Shed’s English lay Lily (Liz Stauber), who casually gives a hand job to legless Uncle Timothy while making a date on her cell phone with her estranged boyfriend. Or the argument Stephen gets into with his boyfriend’s racist friend Tyler (Jacob Pitts) over welfare reform, which culminates in Tyler’s halting revelation “My mother is dead”—a perfectly American way of reducing public debate to irrelevant personal sorrow.
Shinn directs a cast that features some bright young talent. Especially good is MacFarlane, whose role as the disaffected young writer is perhaps the most fully written. (Shinn nails his gay characters.) Moseley has less to work with, but he does cut a menacing figure of frustrated rage and yearning.
On second thought, Where Do We Live may have only one true protagonist—the contemporary American character. Shinn’s astute play reassures that there are playwrights taking troubling notes.