A coastal reverie finds a talented playwright in over his head with “The Coming World,” the latest play from Christopher Shinn, the 25-year-old American dramatist who has been causing a quiet stir in London of late. I missed his much-heralded local debut, “Four,” but caught the mesmerizing “Other People” that came next to the Royal Court. “The Coming World” has sensitivity to spare — arguably, too much so — and a gift for fracturing a telling narrative of small-town life that recalls Conor McPherson, circa “This Lime Tree Bower.” But for all its flights of poetic parlance, this newest play is decidedly earthbound.
An interview on display in the Soho Theater lobby makes clear that Eugene O’Neill was Shinn’s muse this time around, in which case the influence seems to have been the dubious one of the American master at his murkiest and most repetitively opaque. (“A Moon for the Misbegotten” gets quoted at the front of the published script; so, elsewhere, do Whitman and Wallace Stevens.)
Dora (Doraly Rosen) emerges first, speaking of “feeling good,” though it doesn’t take long before it’s clear in just which way she will be made to feel bad. A Blockbuster Video employee in an unnamed New England town, she is in nervous thrall to her ex, Ed (Andrew Scott), a reckless layabout drawn to drugs and booze who is desperate for cash — to the point of robbing his former girlfriend’s store.
Ed and Dora share the first half of the (intermissionless) evening, with lone male thesp Scott standing up near the halfway mark and turning about in order to transform himself into Ed’s tattooed twin brother, Ty. What will any one person do out of need and guilt? Do limitations exist to the demands of love? “The Coming World” conjures up a mostly silent landscape rife with the largest of questions, which wash over the characters like “the roll and retreat” of waves lapping up against the characters’ lives, as if to spur them on toward truth. (Doing its own bit to abet the ambience: Jason Taylor’s lighting of Michael Pavelka’s spare, planked set, a mound near the rear of the stage the sole literal hint of the beachside terrain.)
That same “roll and retreat” also serves to characterize language as interested in the nature of storytelling and memory as it is in the specific recollections that get summoned up. (It’s no accident that an offstage figure like the bar manager Martin has a presence every bit the equal of the trio whom Shinn puts before us.)
One wishes, then, that Shinn trusted atmosphere and nuance enough to help do his work for him rather than pontificating about “desire and truth pull(ing) at the soul with unequal amoral force.” Different actors might make the evening a feat of performance which, under Mark Brickman’s direction, isn’t quite realized here. (Scott is amiable enough but just doesn’t have the chops to individuate the two contrasting men.) Rosen’s emotional directness is as fresh and disarming as it was in “Other People” just over a year ago, but it will take other plays, I fear — and other closing images than a crying seagull — before Shinn starts connecting to his audience and not just to a discourse that risks washing all but the most dedicated theatergoer out to sea.