Playwright makes it ‘Happen’

Shinn comes home to Horizons

Christopher Shinn’s brilliant career began the way every playwright’s should.

“I went into the Barnes & Noble at Astor Place and tore out the page of ‘Beauty Queen of Leenane’ with the address of the Royal Court (Theater) in London and put it in my pocket,” he recalls, thinking back four short years. A 23-year-old Columbia grad student, Shinn had written a play, “Four,” and sans agent or any other useful legit connections, he firmly believed the literary manager at the Court, Graham Whybrow, might just like it. Shinn had also seen “Shopping and Fucking,” which the Court had sent to Gotham that season, and thought, “I am of this world and I’m better than those guys.” (“What 23-year-old pomposity!” he now says.)

Plucked from the Court slush pile, “Four” was up and running in London five months later.

Whybrow had championed the works of other American writers, notably Rebecca Gilman and Kia Corthron, and he would go on to produce the world premieres of Shinn’s “Other People” and “Where Do We Live,” with a recent Court commission, “The Dying City,” set to complete the scribe’s Gotham trilogy there.

In his Variety review, Matt Wolf favorably compared “Where Do We Live,” with its apocalyptic Sept. 11 theme, to the early Michael Frayn drama “Benefactors,” written in 1980, saying the play projects “a truly unsettling awareness of just how easy it is to be dead.”

American theater companies have been forced to play catch-up.

The big news: Shinn’s new one, “What Didn’t Happen,” is his first to receive a world premiere on home turf, Dec. 10 at Playwrights Horizons, which earlier produced “Other People.” Last season, Worth Street and MTC staged his “Four.” And now there are Shinn commissions from Mark Taper Forum and South Coast Rep.

Yet to come is the big commercial transfer.

“What Didn’t Happen” could happen for Shinn.

Chris Noth (“Law & Order,” “Sex and the City”) has signed on for the Horizons run, playing one of three writers of varying degrees of talent, success and potential. Matt McGrath and Steven Skybell round out the trio.

“Chris is writing about a world that’s more put together than the works he has been celebrated for,” says Tim Sanford, artistic director at Playwrights Horizons. “Those earlier plays are peopled by young characters who are searching and a little lost. These characters are more self-aware, articulate; they’re on top of their careers.”

Sanford also is psyched by the new play’s bigger, more intriguing thesis — “In what context does imagination function?” — as well as its novel concept of negativity: “What doesn’t click in our lives is as strong an influence as what we go after and get.”

Curiously, “What Didn’t Happen” contains less raw sex than some of those earlier Shinn works. It’s as if sexual desire has been replaced by the creative urge here.

“It is a more mature play,” Shinn agrees. “My therapist would say I’ve learned to sublimate.”

But not supplement. Yet to come is the windfall movie or TV deal. Which begs the question: How does a 27-year-old with a 212 area code make a living writing nothing but plays?

“It depends on what you call a living,” he says.

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