What Didn’t Happen

At just 27, Christopher Shinn is a tad young to be lamenting the disaffection of the literary life, which may explain why this promising writer's new play rings so hollow. "What Didn't Happen" is an ambitious, carefully constructed exercise in neo-Chekhovian anomie, but there's something labored and academic about much of the writing.

Jeff - Matt Cowell Emily - Suzanne Cryer Scott - Matt McGrath Elaine - Annalee Jefferies Dave - Steven Skybell Peter - Chris Noth Alan - Robert Hogan

At just 27, Christopher Shinn is a tad young to be lamenting the disaffection of the literary life, which may explain why this promising writer’s new play, a world premiere at Playwrights Horizons, rings so hollow. “What Didn’t Happen” is an ambitious, carefully constructed exercise in neo-Chekhovian anomie, but there’s something labored and academic about much of the writing. Too often absent is the fresh, natural and sensitive voice Shinn displayed in previous plays such as “Four,” seen last season at Manhattan Theater Club, and “Where Do We Live,” a subtle and accomplished play that has yet to find a New York home despite a well-received production at London’s Royal Court Theater.

“What Didn’t Happen” takes place at a country retreat in upstate New York on two summer evenings separated by six years. It begins in 1999 with Scott (Matt McGrath), the house’s current owner, hosting a visit from Gotham girlfriend Emily (Suzanne Cryer), who has to coax him into polishing the new script for the TV serial they both work on. He’s more interested in avoiding work, although he’s happy to discuss the several psychoanalysts who’ve been treating his daughter, Jamie, permanently on a CNN drip upstairs.

Popular on Variety

Emily senses that Scott’s attachment to the house goes deeper than a need to escape the city and reconnect with Jamie, whose mother is away in Europe. As the play flashes back to an evening a half-dozen years earlier, the picture slowly comes into focus. Back then, Scott was a young Columbia student helping out with odd jobs at the house, then owned by mentor Dave (Steven Skybell).

On the evening in question, Dave awaits his visitors from the city: actress girlfriend Elaine (Annalee Jefferies); amiably jaded fellow novelist Peter (Chris Noth); and his Columbia colleague Alan (Robert Hogan), a widowed professor who often seems like an extraneous character attached to the play for mathematical reasons, to form a needed link in the chain of soul-baring tete-a-tetes that gradually take over.

Disenchantment is in the air, and as the characters begin swapping disillusions and musing eloquently over their disappointments, the play’s tone becomes redolent of a certain much-revered Russian dramatist. The comparison is specifically evoked: Alan effuses over Elaine’s performance in “The Seagull,” and for that matter, if you squint, those skinny trees surrounding the back-porch set by Jeff Cowie could almost be birches.

Elaine is wary about Dave’s emotional withdrawal, and wonders about his attachment to Scott, whom Dave believes to be a promising writer — despite his ignorance of such things as the meaning of the word schadenfreude, and his tendency to “punish his characters, especially the most vulnerable ones,” out of an excess of “young male rage.” Dave and Paul get into a tense arguments over Dave’s preoccupation with social themes in his writing, not to mention his decision not to buy shirts at Banana Republic out of a sense of moral outrage.

The dialogue often feels worked over, a trifle artificial, with the characters too glibly eloquent, as when Peter chastises Dave over his position on those shirts: “David, we’re small creatures in a vast, unfathomable world, a world that spins forward despite us, and whether or not we buy a shirt at Banana Republic is a superfluous dilemma. The shirt is made! What we don’t have control over: That is history. What we do have control over: That is pleasure.” There is also, frankly, rather too much of it.

In contrast to the dialogue, the subtext of the play, its characters, themes and their interrelationships are underdeveloped. As the discussions range more and more widely over a variety of thorny personal, social and philosophical issues — “Do I have a future?” and “What is the use of an inner life?” are two of many ineffable questions asked — the play’s lack of a defining focus weighs it down. Shinn’s attempts to work up some actual dramatic fireworks, as when Scott begins exhibiting an excess of that “young male rage” toward Dave, feel contrived and insubstantial.

There are plenty of witty and well-phrased observations, as when Elaine laments the dilemma of being a middle-age actress in a youth-obsessed business — “The more I know, the less I matter” — and, under Michael Wilson’s low-key direction, the cast does its best to put some flesh on the writing. Noth, in the audience-friendly role of the cynical rake proselytizing for pleasure, specifically the pleasure of Scotch, gives an endearing, minor-key star turn. Skybell brings a soft-edged earnestness to Dave, while Jefferies makes a quietly dignified Elaine. The likable McGrath, unfortunately, cannot quite overcome his character’s essential opacity.

“What Didn’t Happen,” which on some level concerns life’s turning points and how they can only be recognized in hindsight, marks Shinn’s first world premiere production at a major New York theater. But with luck it will prove to be merely a small speed bump in what might well be a significant theatrical career.

What Didn't Happen

Duke on 42nd Street; 199 seats; $50 top

Production: A Playwrights Horizons presentation of a play in two acts by Christopher Shinn. Directed by Michael Wilson.

Creative: Set, Jeff Cowie; costumes, David C. Woolard; lighting, Howell Binkley; music and sound, John Gromada; production stage manager, Susie Cordon. Artistic director, Tim Sanford. Opened Dec. 10, 2002. Reviewed Dec. 8. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast: Jeff - Matt Cowell Emily - Suzanne Cryer Scott - Matt McGrath Elaine - Annalee Jefferies Dave - Steven Skybell Peter - Chris Noth Alan - Robert Hogan

More Legit

  • Revenge Song

    Vampire Cowboys' 'Revenge Song': L.A. Theater Review

    There’s highbrow, there’s lowbrow, and then there’s however you might classify Vampire Cowboys, the anarchic New York City theater company whose diverse productions . It’s radical, “good taste”-flouting counter-programming for the vast swaths of the population left unserved by high-dollar, stiff-collar theater options. Vampire Cowboys’ raucous new show, “Revenge Song,” is unlike anything else that’s [...]

  • THE VISIT review

    'The Visit': Theater Review

    Director Jeremy Herrin’s extraordinary take on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play “The Visit” is less of a production and more of a show. A wordy one, to be sure, which is no surprise since it’s an adaptation by Tony Kushner that, including two intermissions, comes in at three-and-a-half hours. It’s never going to be described as [...]

  • Freestyle Love Supreme review

    'We Are Freestyle Love Supreme': Film Review

    For any Lin-Manuel Miranda fans whose hearts sank almost as quickly as they rose upon hearing that, yes, there’s a “Hamilton” movie, and no, it won’t be out for another 20 months, succor may be on the way in the form of a probably faster-arriving movie that features Miranda in almost as big a role, [...]

  • Unmasked review

    Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Unmasked': Theater Review

    It takes guts to admit you were wrong — especially when you have been so right, so often. Take composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose successes with  “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Evita,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and “School of Rock” have made him a musical-theater uber-Lord. Early on during [...]

  • Aaron Loeb

    James Ward Byrkit to Direct Aaron Loeb's Off-Broadway Adaptation 'Ideation' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Aaron Loeb’s darkly comic one-act play “Ideation” will be turned into a movie, Variety has learned. The Off-Broadway production centers on a group of corporate consultants who work together on a mysterious and ethically ambiguous project for the government. It premiered in 2016, and went on to become a New York Times Critic’s Pick during [...]

  • Leopoldstadt review

    Tom Stoppard's 'Leopoldstat': Theater Review

    “Leopoldstadt,” the most slow-burn and personal work of 82-year-old Tom Stoppard’s long stage and screen career, is an intimate epic. It springs to astonishing dramatic life in a now bare, but once glorious apartment off Vienna’s Ringstrasse in 1955. The only problem is, for all the visceral emotional intensity of that scene, it forms less [...]

  • Duncan Sheik

    Listen: Duncan Sheik Created a Monster

    The singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik burst onto the musical theater scene with his raucous rock score for “Spring Awakening,” which swept the Tonys back in 2007, and since then, he’s worked steadily on stage — but a lot of his newer projects, including the current “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” have a much quieter [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content