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Writing for Us

A CurtainUp Review
On the Mountain

Who you were then is why you are who you are now.
--- Jaime's Generation Y style sum-up of her mother's insistence of deep freezing her wild and wildly destructive past.
Amy Ryan &  Ebon Moss-Bachrach
Amy Ryan & Ebon Moss-Bachrach
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The pre-opening news stories about Christopher Shinn's new play On the Mountain made intriguing references to both Henry James's novella The Aspern Papers and the legend of Seattle rocker Kurt Cobain as inspirational sources. I consequently spent several subway rides re- reading my tattered copy of James' early work to prepare myself for seeing the prolific young playwright's new On the Mountain at Playwrights Horizon. I was curious to see what this Victorian literary mystery might provide in the way of inspiration for the author of such distinctly contemporary plays as Four, Where Do We Live and What Didn't Happen? As it turns out, quite a bit. However, despite its interesting antecedents, it's unlikely that On the Mountain will endure and even inspire an opera, as The Aspern Papers did.

As I re-read the James story I began to understand the mix and match possibilities. The James story revolves around a young English biographer of Jeffrey Aspern, a famous poet patterned on either Browning or Keats. Having learned about a cachet of love letters written to a now ancient and reclusive mistress, the young man presents himself at the now old woman's Venetian villa as a traveler and author in search of lodgings. He endears himself to her spinster great-niece in order to win her over to his quest for the Aspern papers but finds himself starting to like her a bit more than he bargained for. The Cobain tie-in comes via an unpublished song (originally named "On the Mountain") that was released as "You Know You're Right" only after a lengthy legal battle between Cobain's widow, Courtney Love and the remaining members of his Nirvana band -- almost ten years after the 1993 suicide that devastated the fans who thought of him as the John Lennon of their generation.

As James gave his poet a fictional name, so Shinn calls his dead legend Jason Carlyle and has the young man who hopes to find and use the missing link in a dead artist's public legacy employed as an assistant manager at a record store. The mistress and keeper of the unpublished material is an attractive thirty-four-year-old blonde who's been a recovered alcoholic for ten years and has an emotionally troubled sixteen-year-old daughter (the dead singer's love child). Instead of a villa on a canal and with a lovely garden, the story unfolds in a modest Portland duplex. With the dead legend a musician, instead of snail mailed letters there's a CD tucked into the back of a framed baby picture of the daughter.

So far so good. The Aspern-Cobain inspirational parallels promise to yield an interesting and original drama. With Jo Bonney to direct this New York premiere (the play was commissioned by and first seen at South Coast Rep), the story moves from one scene to the next with this director's characteristic smoothness. To add to the production's assets there's a strong cast; a handsome and subtly lit set encompassing a neat kitchen, living room-den, staircase and small backyard looking out on an expanse of blue sky; as well as apt musical accompaniment.

Each scene has its own curtain or finale. Most of these mini climaxes are followed by the door opening into the kitchen shortly thereafter. The first time that door opens we see Sarah (Amy Ryan) returning from one of her weekly AA meetings with Carrick (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Their getting acquainted scenario fills us in on a lot of background -- and also introduces Jaime (Alison Pill) who's in the garden, a tiny oasis for listening to one of the 800 songs she's loaded into her beloved ipod.

It's clear that there's a sadness lurking beneath Sarah's somewhat brittle exterior and just as clear that it's not unfounded. Besides her alcoholic background and often working two jobs to make ends meet, she must cope with Jaime's immediate problems. Though a would-be writer of real promise, the girl is suffering from so severe a depression that she's dropped out of school, with Prozac and therapy the alternative to Sarah's AA recovery method. No reference is made to fetal alcohol syndrome, but it struck me as a likely root cause for the severity of Jaime's problems.

The time is 2003; the setting is Portland where Sarah moved to get away from years of being the girl in Jason Carlyle's wild and drug-filled life. But while Sarah wants only to forget her past and live her 12-step oriented, ordinary life, Carrick is fascinated by Carlyle as the grunge rock voice for a whole disaffected generation. It doesn't take a detective to figure out that his meeting Sarah in the restaurant where she works is not quite the casual pickup it seems to be (he found out about the unpublished song in her possession on the Internet).

Sarah and Jaime are much easier to get to know than the lonely niece and the aunt who's determined to keep her love letters from falling prey to public scrutiny in The Aspern Papers. Carrick is genuinely drawn to the sexy Sarah and her troubled but talented youngster. Actually, his scenes with Jaime and his sensitivity to her music and writing interests comprise some of the play's most affecting moments. They also showcase Shinn's knack for authentic Generation X and Y dialogue, as well as Moss-Bacharach and Alison Pill's acting. Without any words to fill us in on his own back story, Moss Bacharach manages to use these scenes to convey a sense that he's no stranger to problematic family situations and personal insecurities.

Despite the emotional and attention holding detour from Carrik as a stranger with an agenda to lover and family friend, this subtext tends to weaken the play's subtle link to the century apart struggles over private and public control of dead artists' legacy. The heavy emphasis on the current situation in the externally neat but emotionally volatile duplex turn On the Mountain into a too-familiar story about people trying to deal with their psychological baggage with the sort of remedies advocated in the books on the self-help shelves at any Barnes and Noble bookstore.

The play's fourth and most minor character, a former heroin addict (James Lloyd Reynolds) only adds to the overpowering pop psychology flavor. Moss-Bacharach's charm and likeability, Pill's finely rendered vulnerability and Ryan's portrait of the tense but sexually starved Sarah notwithstanding, the piquant aura of mystery gets weighed down in excessive talkiness -- a worst case example being Carrick's lengthy account of a story Jaime let him read which includes references to the bowl of cereal on the cover of the Playbill.

Mr. Shinn does wind things up with a touching finale that proves cathartic for Sarah and a terrific acting opportunity for her interpreter. But I left the theater worried about Jaime -- my concern less about whether she could get her act together, go back to school and make her dream of becoming a writer come true, but what being constantly plugged into 800 songs at a top decibel level will do to her hearing.

Where Do We Live
What Didn't Happen

On the Mountain
Written by Christopher Shinn
Directed by Jo Bonney
Cast: Amy Ryan (Sarah), Alison Pill (Jaime), Ebon Moss-Bachrach (Carrick) and James Lloyd Reynolds (Phil).
Set Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Mimi O'Donnell
Lighting Design: David Weiner
Sound Design: John Gromada
Running time: 1 hour and 15 minutes, without an intermission.
Playwrights Horizons' Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street 212/ 279-4200 or
2/04/05 to 3/13/05; opening 2/24/05. Tickets: $55 ( Student rush tickets -- cash only-- on day of performance, one hour before curtain and subject to availability)
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on Feb. 19th press preview
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