Where Do We Live
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
The new play by young American playwright Christopher Shinn is ostensibly a tale about a young, gay man and his black neighbours. In fact, it is a deeply symbolic look at life in New York in the period from late July to early October 2001. No one needs reminding of the cataclysmic watershed that took place in the middle of this period.
Within Julian MacGowan's marvellous New York loft set (two living rooms - one seedy and one chic - divided by a trendy bar that doubles as a club dance floor), Richard Wilson directs his twenty-something cast. The main player is Stephen played with great sensitivity by Daniel Evans. He is a writer through whose eyes we see American society at the beginning of the third millennium.
Stephen has a pretty comfortable life in his New York apartment. He is in love with trust-fund supported Tyler (Adam Garcia) and feels that he is doing some good by assisting the one legged, unemployed black man who lives in the apartment opposite. If Stephen has one weakness, it is that he is far too analytical. He wants to improve whatever he sees whether or not it wants to be improved.
On the other side of the corridor, the monosyllabic Shed has been drawn into the dark world of drug dealing by long-term unemployment. He lives with the older Timothy (Cyril Nri), who has lost a leg and his wife in a horrific car crash. Shed's apparent girlfriend, Lily is an import from Chorleywood. She has been borrowed from his pusher, the rich, preppy and entirely unbelievable Dave.
Shed's symbolic impotence and Timothy's financial and physical plights represent the underside of a New York created by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. This is a society that is trying to cut off welfare and is consciously increasing the gulf between the rich and poor. This is something about which Stephen feels passionate and he defends it at whatever the cost to himself and his friends. This is one of his most endearing traits.
As the play crosses the 9/11 watershed, New York and its inhabitants have to rethink their lives and ethos. Giuliani receives a massive vote of confidence and, effectively, his policies are allowed to become even more divisive. Symbolically, the "Big Brother" effect of the Republican Mayor is demonstrated by a creepy intrusive artist who intrudes on Stephen and his friend, Patricia, to sinisterly comic effect.
As New York loses its overwhelming self-confidence, Stephen, having lost Tyler and his own personal esteem is reduced to one night stands, in his search for love. Appropriately, his trysts are depicted with a sexual frankness that might still shock even regular visitors to the Royal Court.
However bad the New York of August had been, Shinn sees the post tragedy jingoism as immeasurably worse. This is not a view that is normally taken up by the mass media and it is all the more valuable for that. September 11 has had a kind of cathartic effect as it makes New Yorkers reflect on themselves and their lives.
Richard Wilson does a good job with most of his cast and, in particular, Daniel Evans catches Stephen very well. Where Do We Live creates more of an impressionist sketch of New York as seen by a gay thinker than a full-scale portrait but it confirms Shinn's great promise.
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.
Where Do We Live runs until 8th June.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher