On a Clear Day

From Christopher Shinns On the Mountain, Sophocles wavers in the distance

Photo by Matt Otto "I'm obsessed with reality. I'm obsessed with the truth, almost to a pathological degree. I always want to know who said what, where did they say it, when did they say it, why did they say it. I want to know in the most intimate detail what happened—and then to find a way to represent that in a way that really adheres to the reality of it. I feel like we live in a time when reality is so manufactured and obfuscated by media and by the people in power that it's really important to have a place [like the theater] where you can see something real, that isn't reality but represents reality in a way that's faithful to actual experience."

Christopher Shinn

You don't fuck around with ChristopherShinn. Though the New York-based playwright/wunderkind is friendly and empathic, he's got a low tolerance for idle talk, for the obvious dishonesties and evasions that most of us let pass in everyday conversation. Though he's unpretentious and seemingly heedless of what you might think of him, he speaks in carefully rounded sentences that generate both depth charges of complex feeling and impressive flights of heady intellect. Though he stakes a claim to the classical tradition of theater that runs from the Greeks through Shakespeare to O'Neill, his own plays are strikingly contemporary, taking on subjects like interracial, intergenerational gay sex (sometimes explicitly rendered); the repercussions of Sept. 11; addictions of every stripe; and, in a play called On the Mountain that opened Jan. 7 on the Julianne Argyros stage at South Coast Repertory, the legacy of Kurt Cobain. Though the first few minutes of dialogue in On the Mountain are flavored with blithe references to iPods, Ashton Kutcher and Radiohead ("Do you like them?" "Um—yes and no? I'm not really hip to the whole hyperproduced weird electronic dystopia thing"), his play is ultimately about that eternal malady called "sadness" and how difficult it is for humans, particularly Americans, to face loss. (Sample bit of the 29-year-old Shinn's conversation: "Sadness is an inevitable ubiquitous element of human life: we are beings who want to live in a world that constantly threatens us with death or that reminds us of death, if not literally then symbolically, through loss and aging and disappointment. And to me, a healthy life has to integrate sadness. Only by integrating sadness can we resist the temptations of fleeing from it in ways that are destructive to others or ourselves." He can also, by the way, tell you in detail why Eminem's most recent CD sucks.) And though he's modest and approachable, there burns in him the quiet flame of confidence and chutzpah that enabled him in 1998, at 23, to become the darling of London theater with the production of his first play, Four, and a few years later to take on New York with a flood of plays (seven to date) that have Tony Award-winning actresses (including Daisy Eagan, who's in the SCR mounting of On the Mountain) dying to work with him.

Also in this issue To read Joel Beers' review of Shinn's new play, click here. Plus, the man's not afraid of voicing an opinion. About Quentin Tarantino: "I didn't like [Pulp Fiction]. I think it's racist and homophobic and stupid and violent and gross." He didn't care much for Moulin Rouge, either: "That was just like chaos. I couldn't watch 10 minutes of that. I thought I was going to die." And then there's Sideways, which seems to be popping up on everybody else's list of Oscar contenders for Best Picture: "I thought it wasn't a convincing or insightful evocation of straight male relationships. I don't believe that the film represents an honest experience of straight men and their sexual conflicts. I just didn't believe it." Or, finally, about the chasmic divisions separating the biggest pop icons of the '90s and the double-zeros, respectively: "Kurt Cobain sang a song called 'Rape Me,' and Eminem has rapped about sexually, violently attacking women, and that's about as far apart as you can get. I think Kurt Cobain sang a lot about child abuse and what it feels like to be abandoned, and Eminem has a song where he raps with his daughter, and in the song, he's miming sniffing cocaine, and his daughter sings on that—and that's child abuse. That's about as depraved a moment in pop culture as I can think of in the past decade."

He's not, by the way, "being negative" or provocative with this stuff: Shinn speaks calmly and thoughtfully and gives off the distinct impression he's reached that enviable if exhausting stage in psychological development (facilitated, one guesses, by his five-days-per-week sessions with a strict Freudian) where all he cares about is honesty—where what matters is an open congruity between what he feels on the one hand and what he says and does on the other. Where his writing for the theater has to answer only one question: "Is it true?" Which explains his impatience with media cant—with the "manufactured, obfuscated" electronic babble that surrounds us—and that "obsession" of his with "truth" and "reality."

* * *

The new play, On the Mountain, getting its world premiere in Costa Mesa before moving on to an off-Broadway run starting at the end of this month, is deceptively straight-forward, yet to cynics wary of the Cobain-inspired plot, it might set off alarms of opportunism or celebrity piggybacking. But they needn't worry. The plot's backstory does feature a Seattle rock star (named Jason Carlyle) who was the hero of his generation, married another rock star and killed himself in 1994 following years of drug addiction. But Jason is nine years dead as the play begins (he never, thankfully, appears in flashback), and the story turns out to be about a woman in her early 30s named Sarah (played by Susannah Schulman) who's moved herself and her 16-year-old daughter Jaime (the note-perfect Eagan) to Portland in order to start a new life after years in an alcoholic haze as Carlyle's lover.

The set is as about as literal and realistic as can be: it's a contemporary apartment, with a clean, orderly kitchen with a working sink (Sarah is constantly washing up); a desk with a working computer (once Jaime looks up something on Google, and she's really online); and a backyard area (the "smoker's exile") where characters really smoke and where the first few rows on stage left may catch a little secondhand nicotine. (On the Mountain was the first play Shinn wrote as a non-smoker, he says, and he's sublimating all over the place. And, anyway, the nicotine won't be the only toxins the audience gets exposed to.) For a writer who's being hailed as the voice of a new generation, the simplicity of the setting may come as a surprise: there's no modernist abstraction, no postmodern ironic fuss—this could be an O'Neill set, or even an Ibsen.

It's not easy to overcome decades' worth of experimentation in which playwrights and directors have labored under the modern conviction that the proscenium arch had to be a window into the magical or the heightened and otherworldly (rather than a frame for the utterly recognizable), but Shinn and his worthy director, Mike Rucker, have done it with ease here. From the moment Sarah comes home from her waitressing shift at a restaurant holding a shopping bag with one arm and dragging in a guy she's picked up with the other (Carrick, played by Nathan Baesel, who with his goatee and Gen X mannerisms is a dead ringer for Reality Bites-era Ethan Hawke), we in the audience feel like privileged voyeurs peeking through a window into real life. This illusion couldn't be sustained, of course, without Shinn's patient delineation of quotidian behavior; some very fine "natural" acting; Shinn's superb dialogue; and his way with plot, which doesn't feel like it "develops" at all, but rather unfolds, meandering, and then once in a while and all at once shockingly comes upon its own theme.

What unfolds is an updated version of the oldest story in the world: a person in denial about the past is forced to confront it. (I believe it was a man named Oedipus who first faced the issue.) Here the Oedipus is Sarah: a 34-year-old mother, newly responsible and trying to do the right thing, who'd very much like to forget her whole alcohol-laced, irresponsible Seattle years and manages to do so even though an embodiment of that past—Jaime, her iPod-toting love child with Jason Carlyle, and a blazingly fascinating mess of an adolescent—is living side by side with her. There's nothing instinctively motherly about Sarah—Schulman makes Sarah seem physically uneasy around her daughter, as if unsure when or how to touch her—and the two keep up an uneasy truce with each other until Carrick shows up to catalyze the plot.

Carrick, it turns out, is a huge fan of Sarah's old lover's band, and after some careful coaxing, he manages to get Sarah to give up coating her past with lies and to open up—a little. But Sarah's stubborn, convinced that the best way to deal with her past is to see it as a dream—or better, to "feel like it happened to someone else. Not you. And in a way, it wasn't you. It wasn't the real you." Walking blind into this cauldron of family strife, Carrick is believably patient and caring—Baesel gives Carrick a calm, slackerly presence onstage among these two often-frantic women, as well as the sense he's used to family trouble, that he can handle their moral and emotional complexity. In fact, the most touching relationship in the play develops between Carrick and Jaime, who share a love of '90s bands, cigarettes and writing. Jaime writes stories that are filled with odd alienating detail, loneliness and sexual mysteries she's trying to work out. These stories scare her mother, who wants her daughter's writing to "make sense," but Carrick, who doesn't otherwise seem like a reader, gets so excited by one story he summarizes it at length for Sarah (and for us), and we can see the kinship that develops between Jaime and her mom's boyfriend. Their bond increases the pressure on Sarah to open up.

But Sarah's no easy nut to crack: her stubborn refusal to fully own up to her past—which in the end means to see her daughter, who's quit school and feels so unloved and depressed she's on Prozac—is steeled by a huge injection of fear. Owning her past means realizing—as Jaime puts it in one of the play's many eruptions of the demotic poetry of Generation Y speech—that "who you were then, like, is why you are who you are now." (Out of the mouths of Radiohead listeners . . .) It takes a breakup with Carrick, a hookup with an ex-heroin addict and a final confrontation with Jaime before Sarah breaks down utterly and, in a cathartic release of pain, begins the agonizing process of putting past and present, her severed pieces of self, back together again. The final scene is a demanding, formidable challenge to any actress, and Susannah Schulman is on the cusp of making it live as it should: it's the kind of soul-revealing role that actresses clamor to get, and then they often wither when they realize what they've gotten themselves into. Same thing goes for the audience, who may get more than they bargained for when they went out for their pleasant evening of theater.

"Humankind cannot bear very much reality," Rilke wrote, and the reality-obsessed Shinn piles it on here.

* * *

Theater is forever sounding its death-knell. Beseiged by ever-evolving techno-sexy dramatic forms such as film and video, knowing their own honorable conventions have been ground down to tasteless powder by TV, writers and directors in the theater often feel compelled to join 'em since they can't beat 'em, incorporating more of all that jazz-backscreen video, punishing music, lasers, irony-clad narratives that genuflect like crazy to mass-media forms, angels swinging from the rafters. Not that there's anything wrong with that, necessarily. Christopher Shinn's mentor when he was at NYU's program in dramatic writing, Tony Kushner, is a brave practitioner of experimentation, and Shinn was a student of Kushner's in 1993 and 1994, when Angels in America broke big. Shinn could have followed in his teacher's footsteps. He also could have decided to go into the more lucrative world of film, but after getting a load of the Tarantino-adoring faculty and students on the film side of the program, Shinn, who is gay and finds the macho posturing of hetero artists heinous, decided to trust his instincts and go his own way.

His way, it turns out, is elemental and "classical." "Structures have been in place," he says, "for thousands of years now about what makes a good play." You learn about them by being "informed by the canon of great works," he says. "That doesn't mean you can't radicalize that or subvert it—you can . . . [but] there's a bit of hubris in thinking you can re-invent the wheel. . . . The structure of human life, the structure of being a subject on the earth, hasn't really changed in thousands of years, and that's why those old plays still resonate—more than resonate, they can still terrify. That's the tradition that I see myself in. I'm a part of this tradition that's been built over thousands of years, and I am the recipient of all the wisdom that's come before me."

(T.S. Eliot couldn't have put it better. Actually, he did say it better, just slightly, in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," which I kept begging Shinn to read.)

Now this isn't an attitude you see every day among your common, garden-variety voice of your generation, which is typically brash, fuck-the-canon and eager to burn away the evidence that any great writer lived before he or she did. (Actually, "he": women writers never talk this way.) This willingness to trust and submit oneself to the tradition while boldly exploring the deeply troubling personal emotions that made Shinn want to write in the first place is what gives On the Mountain, this most realistic and "everyday" of plays, an almost-mythological edge. Seeing it makes one feel, in fact, that the everyday is mythological, that we do, every day, enact private narratives that are packed with shareable feeling, rife with larger significance involving grander narratives than we know. Shinn is one of the few young writers out there, writing in any form, who come to their work with a sense that "reality" can be captured (as opposed to ironically mimicked or surreptitiously evoked) and, best of all, that it can be captured onstage, where whatever web of illusion is being weaved, real people move around in real space in real time. In the use of iPods and the Internet, Shinn may be as up-to-date as you want to be, but his sources are sturdily, elementally ancient, and when you climb your way up On the Mountain, you can see all the way to Sophocles.

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