Photo by Christopher Gross/SCRRadiohead, iPods and grunge-rock-star suicides aside, there isn't much new in Christopher Shinn's play On the Mountain.Fragile people running from themselves by immersing themselves in armchair psychobabble and self-help dogma; troubled teens wrestling with issues of identity; decent dudes who make the foolish mistake of falling in love with untrustworthy women.
Worse, the way Shinn tells the story isn't particularly novel or fresh. Sure, the 29-year-old playwright definitely has a knack for capturing Gen-X vernacular—like, really, dude—but the lack of richly argued ideas and compelling action keeps this play mired in dramaturgical mud.
Both the plot and characters are either too undeveloped or predictable to invest more than token interest in, and that's very disappointing because there are enough moments in On the Mountainto suggest Shinn has major talent.
Carrick (a stalwartly Nathan Baesel) is an assistant manager at a Sam Goody store in Portland. He's developed an interest in Sarah (a self-righteously brittle Susannah Schulman), a 34-year-old waitress at a neighboring restaurant who he thinks may have some connection with Jason Carlyle, a grunge-rock voice of a disaffected generation who overdosed in Seattle some 10 years before. But after meeting Sarah and her teenage daughter, Jaime (a keenly real Daisy Eagan), a depressive writer of formidable talent, Carrick finds himself falling for both of them—in very different ways. But infatuation, as always, wears off; everybody's bullshit rises to the surface; and emotional ketchup bursts start spraying all over the place.
Also in this issue To read Cornel Bonca's article on playwright Christopher Shinn, click here. Not the most compelling plot synopsis, and it isn't much more engaging onstage, with the dynamic between mother and daughter veering dangerously close to after-school-special histrionics.
This play isn't ready yet. The plot is patchy and plodding, and the ideas Shinn plants—the battle between the personal and public legacy of an artist, how recovery can sometimes be a form of not dealing with the present—don't blossom. For a play that is very talky, not much gets said.
Take the character of Sarah. In recovery for 10 years, she drones on about such things as personal responsibility and accountability, on not relying on the rest of the world for happiness, of the need to create our own reality. As things progress and her neurosis is revealed, we see that she is in fact full of shit: her embracing of the self-help nomenclature is less an attempt to heal than a desperate attempt to not deal with her rather sucky present by clinging to the past.
Or so it would seem. It's really hard to tell if we should feel sorry for Sarah because of the pain she's endured or hate her guts for being a manipulative, self-righteous, blathering mess of deception, contradiction and hypocrisy. Don't know for sure, and the problem is by play's end, I didn't care much about figuring it out.
Ultimately, On the Mountainfeels like a 100-minute AA session. Everyone sits around and talks, smokes a cigarette, talks some more, lights up again and goes right back to talking. But outside of everyone congratulating themselves for taking such positive steps to recover, nothing substantive gets done. They've merely substituted one addiction for another. Meanwhile, life outside goes on all around them. That's fine on a personal level; whatever someone needs to do to change self-destructive behavior is a heroic act. But when a play mirrors that kind of self-centered insularity, it makes for rather frigid viewing.
ON THE MOUNTAIN AT SOUTH COAST REPERTORY's JULIANNE ARGYROS STAGE, 655 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-5555. TUES.-FRI., 7:45 p.m.; SAT.-SUN., 2 & 7:45 P.M. THROUGH JAN. 23. $19-$56.