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On the Mountain

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

No one expects a return to the Well-Made Play school of dramatic writing, but well-made plays - with solid beginnings, middles, and ends - will be welcome as long as there's theatre. As far as Christopher Shinn's On the Mountain is concerned, two out of three ain't bad.

But oh, that remaining third! The ending of Shinn's new play at Playwrights Horizons is almost weak enough to sour your opinion of not only the rest of this otherwise solid play but Shinn as a playwright. Though he's infused On the Mountain with enough originality to surprise those familiar with his other plays (including Four and Where Do We Live, the latter of which played last year at the Vineyard), Shinn's not quite willing to step completely into the unknown.

If this play's ending is its least satisfying feature, it's because it's the most Shinn-like element. The rest of this story, about a group of people coping with their addictions and need for human contact, seems to have come from a different writer altogether. From the laid-back lushness of its 2003 Portland, Oregon setting to some deceptively low-key plot specifics, this is a play simultaneously refreshing in its familiarity to current dramatic fare and full of surprises for those who think they know how Shinn shows work and feel.

In many ways, you'll feel like you already know Sarah Scott (Amy Ryan), a young single mother dealing with her troubled, clinically depressed teenage daughter Jaime (Alison Pill) and her own recovery from alcoholism. Trying to balance work, her daughter, and her AA meetings has left Sarah lonely of both heart and soul, so she jumps quickly at an opportunity for a relationship with Carrick (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a Sam Goody clerk with a taste for early 1990s grunge rock.

Carrick's real goals, however, aren't clear: At times, he seems less interested in her than in her history with Jason Carlyle, the Kurt Cobain-like lead singer of the Seattle-based band Ration, who died at age 30 before he could reach his fullest potential. Internet lore has it that Jason left Sarah the only copy of a special song he recorded, and that song - if it exists - has now gained almost mythic status. So does Carrick want the woman or the music she might possess?

This question carries an unexpected dramatic weight when it's being addressed by people for whom the border between want and need can be the difference between life and death. Shinn is dedicated to exploring the middle ground as well as the extremes, and he does it skillfully, both in individual lines that scope the problem ("The addiction always takes over. It controls you - you don't control it.") and even the late introduction of a fourth character, an AA member named Phil (James Lloyd Reynolds) who represents too much of what Sarah thinks she's looking for.

Shinn's at his best when tackling this kind of uncertainty, and he defines no character better than the conflicted Sarah, whom Ryan plays perfectly as a world-weary woman composed of equal parts confusion, frustration, and passion. By contrast, Moss-Bachrach is thoroughly one-note as Carrick, never successfully tapping into the past that should be vital to who Carrick is now. Reynolds, in his tiny role, creates a more complete, compelling portrait of a man whose life has been affected more by his addictions than he realizes, and Pill expertly paints a believable portrait of Jaime's unfettered teen angst at its most destructive.

But even the superb Pill and Ryan can't bring a sense of finality to the Sarah-Jaime relationship; Shinn never gives them a chance. That's what sinks the final scene, and by extension the play: The constant cooling and re-heating of the mother-daughter dynamic is what provides the play with its most moving, realistic scenes. Who's the rebel, who's in charge, and who needs who more are issues constantly in flux, and Shinn doesn't bring them to conclusion as much as he abandons them. The message is clear: For these characters, there are no easy resolutions. But there are more satisfying ways to get your play to clock in under 90 minutes, if that was the concern (as it seems to have been).

It's something of a betrayal given Shinn's otherwise astute writing, and the fine work of the actors and director Jo Bonney, who's structured and paced the evening with exquisite care. The design, too, is top-notch, with Mimi O'Donnell's vaguely grunge-inspired costumes, David Weiner's pastoral lights, and John Gromada's integral sound design and attractive original music. More striking still is Neil Patel's set, a charming, homey refuge of a cottage placed against an endless expansive of beautiful, open sky.

Though Patel's work leaves you wanting to see more, it feels complete. Shinn's, however, does not.

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Playwrights Horizons
On the Mountain
Through March 13
Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4200