Everyone from the Mark Taper Forum to the Royal Court wants a piece of Christopher Shinn (“What Didn’t Happen,” “Other People”). Touted as the mouthpiece of his screwed-up generation, youthful scribbler (who turns 30 this year) got his rep by tackling issues that savvy auds want to see depicted onstage: sex, drugs and dead rock stars, for sure, but also adult angst, teen depression and the addictive behaviors that cut across otherwise alienated generations. “On the Mountain” pushes the right buttons, but the form is so loose that there’s no focus or resolution to the provocative issues raised.
Kudos to Amy Ryan (“A Streetcar Named Desire”) for holding the undeveloped material together. In a supple perf registering feeling and intelligence, thesp keeps our attention riveted on a mysterious woman named Sarah who lives with her teenage daughter in Portland, Ore.
There’s a wariness in her eyes and an air of exhaustion to her movements that tip us off to the fact that she works a 60-hour week as a waitress. Mimi O’Donnell’s drab costumes and Neil Patel’s dead-real set of their orderly but shabby house show us how hard Sarah is struggling to lead a “normal” life.
It’s one foot in front of the other and one day at a time for Sarah, a former doper who never misses an AA meeting and takes life at its literal sense. “She thinks lyrics have to say exactly what they mean,” says her daughter, Jaime, a smart kid who is fiercely attached to her iPod and the belief that incoherence makes you special.
In Alison Pill’s subtle perf, Jaime comes to life as a bright but depressed teen in desperate need of a depth of understanding that is beyond her mother. Their ongoing battle over Jaime’s musical idols (Radiohead, Tori Amos) and Sarah’s tastes (“whatever’s on the radio”) is a revealing flash of the gulf between them.
Unlike Ryan and Pill, who find ways to suggest the inner lives of their characters, Ebon Moss-Bachrach (“The Royal Tenenbaums”) is all surface mannerisms as Carrick, a Sam Goody clerk who worms his way into their home on false pretenses. Carrick has discovered Sarah’s secret — she’s the former girlfriend of a Kurt Cobainlike rock star who committed suicide 10 years earlier — and his ulterior motive in playing up to Sarah is to get his hands on an unpublished song that was the star’s last gift to her.
Moss-Bachrach’s twitchy perf makes it hard to go along with the changing dynamic in the household as Carrick falls in love with Sarah and forges a bond with Jaime, romanticizing the awkward girl as a sensitive budding artist whose behavioral problems he blames on a sensation-driven world that devours art but eats artists alive. But the thesp can’t be held entirely accountable for the inconclusive argument in which Carrick holds up his purist views of art against Sarah’s survivalist philosophy of sensible sobriety. That’s a writing thing.
Shinn has a commanding grasp of the near-inarticulate idiom in which his characters express their half-baked thoughts. But the scribe consistently breaks up a scene or swerves off a subject just when things are getting interesting.
Likewise, helmer Jo Bonney gives the players plenty of space to air their characters’ moody thoughts but makes little effort to lock them into a confrontational stance.
Evading uncomfortable truths in intimate conversation may well be the defining trait that unites these three floundering souls. But evasion doesn’t make for dynamic theater, and Shinn indulges his shifty characters by giving them too many opportunities to avoid confronting their demons. Is Carrick going to confess that he set Sarah up? Is Sarah about to come clean about her shameful past? Is Jaime ready to read us one of her short stories?
Don’t sweat it. One of the key players is sure to storm out of the house. A superfluous character is bound to walk in the door. Should anything slip out in conversation — and it would have to be in conversation, since there is virtually no action in the play — the playwright is sure to drop the subject before anything significant comes of it.
It’s easy to see why everyone wants a piece of Shinn. He seems to know what young people are thinking about when their eyes are closed and they’re listening to their favorite tracks. And he damn well knows how they talk. But in this play, at least, he’s letting his characters dictate to him, going along with their vagaries instead of applying a stricter theatrical structure to shape their ideas and finish their sentences for them.