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Writing for Us

A CurtainUp Review
What Didn't Happen

What's the use of an inner life?
You can't see it. You can't touch it.

---Pete, a successful novelist.
 Matt McGrath & Suzanne Cryer
Matt McGrath & Suzanne Cryer
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The somewhat mysterious sounding title clarifies Chrisopher Shinn's intent to have you learn about a group of characters learning about each other but without a neatly tied up ending. Despite alcohol induced confrontations and revelations, the six year apart gatherings at an upstate cottage do little to alleviate the personal and professional struggles of the colleagues, lovers and friends thrown together in this seemingly idyllic setting far from the New York rat race.

As he did in his last and justly admired Four, Shinn once again proves himself to be a writer who knows how to elevate seemingly familiar types into strong characters who talk in the vernacular of real people. Structurally, What Didn't Happen i has all the elements of a drawing room or country house drama: a diverse cast of characters interacting with each other with a mix of poignancy, cruelty and humor. In this case the drawing room is replaced by a front porch and yard. The country cottage, of whose interior we only catch a glimpse, is owned in 1993 by Dave (Stephen Skybell), a middle-aged writer in emotional and professional crisis, and six years later by his protege Scott (Matt McGrath), who is equally conflicted.

As Four examined love and American mores by cutting back and forth between two couples on Fourth of July dates, What Didn't Happen jumps between what did and didn't happen in 1993 that adds up to the unfulfilled dreams of these people (and lots of others) in the Clinton era. It begins on an evening in 1999, and flashes back to the earlier events which, as in Four, feature that most American of customs, a barbecue.

Reading a plot summary doesn't begin to do justice to the nuances that make Shinn such a welcome addition to the ranks young American playwrights (interestingly, this is first play not to be launched in London). The 1999 opening scene is marked by the arrival of Emily (Suzanne Cryer), Scott's colleague of the television show on which he's a producer. There's clearly also a personal relationship which seems to have been side-tracked by his retreating to the cabin where six years earlier he worked for his professor and mentor. With him, but never seen, is his catatonic eleven-year-old daughter (a younger symbolic counterpart of the wife and mother in Four). To echo his younger self, there's around the house helper Jeff (Matt Cowel an eighth grader making an auspicious Off-Broadway debut), another local boy eager to make something of his life.

In the longer Clinton impeachment era segments, it's Steve's lover Elaine (Annalee Jefferies), who arrives at the cottage where Steve has been holed up in order to finish his novel without distractions. As Elaine quickly notes, Dave has not been too distracted to get involved in a mentoring friendship (with some unexpressed sexual tensions) with one of his Columbia students who, along with his artist wife and toddler, is spending the summer in his family's nearby house. What should be a romantic reunion, turns into a barbecue to which Steven has invited another Columbia professor and neighbor, Alan (Robert Hogan). Add to this Peter (Chris Noth), an old friend and rival who didn't have to go far out of the way to his own country house to give Elaine a ride, and you've got enough frustrations, differences of opinion and opportunities for these people to wound each other to ignite the charcoal briquettes.

The play is not without soft spots; notably, some over earnest talkiness, especially by Dave, and the unseen child as an all too obvious symbol of the isolation and shakiness of the state of the American value system. On the whole though the play commands your interest and it is well served by the actors.

The men have the juiciest parts. That does not prevent Annalee Jefferies from having some very fine moments as an actress mature enough to do her best work but too old for a theatrical market place that puts a premium on youth -- and to get exacerbated enough to betray Steve.

Matt McGrath is terrific as the at once vulnerable and manipulatively needy as Scott. Chris Noth lights up the stage as the character for whom the playwright has written some of the funniest bits of business and the most irreverent observations (e.g. "What I don't understand about the theater is why people don't walk out" and a typical men-at-the-urinal scene with McGrath, in this case out in the woods). For all the joking around he reveals himself as haunted by regrets and insecurities as everyone else in a wonderful monologue about a book tour taken to cities where he's less likely to be embarrassed by his compromises.

Robert Hogan's Alan, is the last but by no means least audience satisfying guest to arrive at the picnic. His diatribe against students who don't read the assigned books and "fiddle with their little bottles of water" and come alive only when they have a computer mouse in their hands, is an amusing take on dumbed down students. (The pills he gives to the depressed Dave add another of those soft spots -- something of a gun that doesn't go off).

Michael Wilson directs the excellent cast fluently. Jeff Cowie has created the perfect cottage in the woods which Howell Binkley illuminates beautifully. John Gromada's sound design (we hear enough cars being revved up by people heavily under the influence to make us fear for a car crash climax) and incidental music add to the excellent production values.

Christopher Shinn seems to have steered clear of the crippling and compromising career choices of his characters. Since he's still three years shy of age thirty, it's exciting to be watching a writer to whom, to quote a character from a much older American playwright "attention must be paid."

What Didn't Happen
Written by Christopher Shinn
Directed by Michael Wilson
Cast: Matt Cowell (Jeff), Suzanne Cryer (Emily), Matt McGrath (Scott), Annalee Jefferies (Elaine), Steven Skybell (Dave), Chris Noth (Peter) and Robert Hogan (Alan).
Set Design: Jeff Cowie
Costume Design: David C. Woolard
Lighting Design: Howard Binkley
Original Music and Sound Design: John Gromada
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, includes one intermission
>Playwrights Horizon at the Duke on 42nd, 229 W. 42nd St. (7th/8th Aves) 212/239-6200O
11/15/02-12/22/02. Tue - Fri @8PM, Sat @3PM & 8PM, Sun @3PM & 7PM--$50.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 6th press preview
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