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On the Mountain

Playwright Christopher Shinn's sense of alienation in his early 20s, and his appreciation of Nirvana's ability to help him articulate his sadness, inspired the creation of "On the Mountain." Built on the impact of a ghostly Kurt Cobain-like character, it lacks energy and passion; although many passages are insightfully written, they're overly polite and civilized. Plot elements don't follow through and the ending is so uncertain that spectators are left hanging in midair.

Cast:
Carrick - Nathan Baesel Jaime - Daisy Eagan Phil - Matt Roth Sarah - Susannah Schulman

Playwright Christopher Shinn’s sense of alienation in his early 20s, and his appreciation of Nirvana’s ability to help him articulate his sadness, inspired the creation of “On the Mountain.” Built on the impact of a ghostly Kurt Cobain-like character, it lacks energy and passion; although many passages are insightfully written, they’re overly polite and civilized. Plot elements don’t follow through and the ending is so uncertain that spectators are left hanging in midair.

At first, Shinn (author of “Four,” “Other People” and “Where Do We Live”) is on an intriguing track when he introduces Sam Goody employee Carrick (Nathan Baesel), who worships deceased rock star Jason Carlyle. Carrick romances Sarah (Susannah Schulman), a waitress and Carlyle’s former lover, and their well-acted interplay is amusingly breezy (“You don’t tell me anything about your past” and “You’re hilarious, I’ve only known you seven minutes”). Mark Rucker, directing this world premiere, effectively develops their flirtation.

Slowly, we comprehend that Carrick has targeted Sarah on the basis of Internet information that she has a never-heard CD of a song Carlyle wrote; Carrick wants to lay his hands on this priceless possession.

The trouble is, Carrick’s portrayal isn’t calculating enough, and the portrait is short on dark, dangerous shadings. He doesn’t need to be a routine, raging psychopath, but he’s also not a dedicated musician, or a man who identifies in some deeply complex, tortured way with the dead icon. Carrick refers to an offstage incident with Sarah, in which he freaks out about her link with Carlyle, yet this meltdown has no reality because we don’t see it or experience a gut-level connection.

More interesting dynamics evolve between Carrick and Sarah’s 16-year-old daughter, Jaime (Daisy Eagan), a severely depressed girl who quits school. Jaime is a writer, and though Sarah doesn’t see potential in her latest work, Carrick does. He writes her an enthusiastic note — “your story really rocks” — and mounts a genuinely warm defense of her talent.

As troubled Jaime, Eagan chatters with rapid conviction, and her attachment to music and performers is convincing. When she talks of transferring 800 songs on her iPod, expresses excitement about Smashing Pumpkins and indicates pleasure that Carrick likes Tori Amos, the theme of music and its power to affect lives and feelings is forcefully highlighted.

Here again, however, the plot doesn’t deliver on Carrick’s unexpected approval and how it gives Jaime artistic stimulus and a heightened self-image. Carrick vanishes, and she remains unchanged, barely reacting to his disappearance.

Bewilderingly, the Carlyle/Cobain story is abandoned, and we’re faced with a familiar, soapy semi-resolution about a woman repeatedly rejected by men.

An attempt to compensate for prolonged understatement results in a mother-daughter clash. This outbreak of violence arrives too late. Sarah cries, “Why does everybody leave me?” as if her inability to retain masculine affection were the play’s primary issue. It’s Mama Rose’s cry in “Gypsy,” but in that story we saw good reason why lovers walked out. Embodied by Susannah Schulman, the point isn’t valid. She’s beautiful, she has kicked her drinking habit and kept herself together after a self-destructive, wasted existence.

The second act wobbles when Sarah dates Phil (Matt Roth), a recovered heroin addict, and they strain to make contact. Shinn’s dialogue here has nervous, neurotic wit, and Roth makes his narcissistic ramblings believable. Unfortunately, Roth is a superfluous character who slows down the action.

Adam Arslanian’s music cues, which should suggest thundering pathological obsession, are mild and minimal, and Donna Marquet’s predominantly beige set is an appropriate, if pallid, external representation of Schuman’s struggle to lead a straight-and-narrow life, These elements perpetuate the low level of tension and the absence of down-and-dirty, all-out emotionalism that the story needs.

Play will be staged at New York’s Playwrights Horizons in February.

On the Mountain

South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, Costa Mesa; 336 seats; $56 top

Production: A South Coast Repertory production of a play in two acts by Christopher Shinn. Directed by Mark Rucker.

Crew: Sets, Donna Marquet; costumes, Melanie Watnick; lighting, Rand Ryan; composer and sound design, Aram Arslanian; production manager, Jeff Gifford. Opened, reviewed Jan. 8, 2005; runs through Jan. 23. Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.

Cast: Carrick - Nathan Baesel Jaime - Daisy Eagan Phil - Matt Roth Sarah - Susannah Schulman

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