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.
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.