Life may indeed be other people, to repeat the adage duly quoted near the end of Christopher Shinn’s Royal Court play “Other People,” but there’s no doubt whatsoever that its 24-year-old New York-based author is someone worth attending to right now. Perhaps best described as a gay American variant on Patrick Marber’s distinctly hetero “Closer,” “Other People” is as overwritten and sometimes unwieldy as its English cousin (of sorts is pulled taut. But such faults pertain to structure, not to a fresh voice or to compassion, both of which “Other People” contains in abundance. The real question posed by the play — Shinn’s second in the Court studio after the wildly acclaimed 1998 “Four,” which I missed — relates not to an unarguable talent; it’s the practical issue of how many people will ever get to see either it or James Frain’s altogether amazing central performance. The entire run (previews included) is a shockingly brief two weeks.
The play’s shotgun appearance is a double shame, since its shape as it emerges in Dominic Cooke’s affecting if leisurely production may be a shade too flaccid to ensure it any commercial life. (There’s nothing, of course, to prevent it in time transferring downstairs to the Court mainstage.)
That assessment, however, in no way minimizes the cumulative impact of a series of clipped scenes that cast a melancholy eye over six New Yorkers during the festive season ending on a none-too-jolly New Year’s Eve. Following the Court’s opener, “Dublin Carol,” this is the second play to set its characters’ private miseries against the joy — or not, as the case may be — that is Christmas. But unlike that play, “Other People” doesn’t rub our noses in the mismatch. Instead, it articulates a pain — a collective of easily frayed nerves — that no amount of time, holiday or otherwise, will easily heal.
The given season helps to explain the coming together of its characters, all of whom are drifters at differing points on the social spectrum and severed in various ways from society, family or even the past. Petra (the excellent Doraly Rosen) is newly returned from stripper work in Japan only to resume the same occupation in Manhattan. There, she is courted by a customer, the generically named Man (Nigel Whitmey), an investment banker in search of intimacy without physicality due to his claim that he has herpes.
Connections are proving no less troublesome for Petra’s two East Village roommates, onetime semi-lovers now on the splits. Stephen (Daniel Evans, all puppyish overeagerness) is a garrulous film critic with a precarious job at Web site who doesn’t have the easiest time with his (unseen) Connecticut family and is finding it even harder to handle the newfound religiosity of Mark (James Frain), his ex, a recovering drug addict. A filmmaker with a highly developed sense of Zen, Mark would seem to have foresworn anything tactile, smoking and sex included. But that’s before he meets Tan (Neil Newbon, doing very well by a role custom-made for Mark Ruffalo), a lethargically seductive street kid — his favorite word is “whatever” — who earns his keep disrobing and masturbating in public when he’s not luring Mark into the privacy of an absent client’s hotel room bathtub.
Robert Innes Hopkins’ sliding set allows the play’s various duos and trios to ease on and off in a series of encounters conspicuously lacking in the emotion-putting buttons that might characterize many a flimsier but better-made play. In the first act especially, several scenes outlive their welcome, and it’s not always clear whether Shinn is indulging his characters’ psychobabble (Petra lecturing Man on consciousness, say) or sending it up. One feels a surfeit of angst struggling to weigh anchor, as if Shinn were unleashing into one evening more melancholia than he truly knew what to do with.
The second act puts such reservations right, and disturbingly so, abetted no end by the first local theater appearance in years from Frain, the rising film actor (“Hilary and Jackie,” “Titus,” the imminent “Where the Heart Is”), here making a phenomenal stake on the stage as his natural home. Without in any way brightening proceedings — it’s the fundamental sadness of “Other People” that may account in part for this New York writer’s appeal overseas — Shinn gathers control over material that earlier on has seemed a largely undifferentiated morass.
And as the characters’ communal sense of dislocation deepens, Frain’s Mark is the one to sear us furthest still, lapsing back into a dependency cunningly signaled at one point by a simple change of clothes.
That explains why his smile — as it must be — is both sweet and rather creepy, the facial index of a state of grace that we know to be a lie. “Oh God, I hurt, I hurt,” says Mark late on, with disarming directness. So, too, does this play at its best, at which points both “Other People” and its star are really something.