On The Mountain
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
February 19, 2005
On the Mountain may be the first play of the iPod generation—a play where the iPod treasured by one of the characters is not just a casual prop, but crucial in the resolution of one of the play’s central relationships. And if that seems like it might be gimmicky and a little cold, well, it is. It’s the culmination of a play that never quite connects emotionally.
The relationship in question is a more-than-usually fraught mother-daughter pairing between Sarah, an alcoholic almost ten years into recovery, and Jaime, the clinically depressed adolescent daughter she is raising alone. Jaime’s birth was one of many consequences of Sarah’s drinking days, when she was not just a party girl but also a hanger-on to a Seattle grunge band (presumably the equivalent of Nirvana) and sometime girlfriend of its now-deceased front man, Jason Carlyle (a thinly disguised Kurt Cobain figure, down to the drug addiction and death by overdose). Although Sarah claims that Jason was not Jaime’s father, he was the closest thing she had to a father figure before Jason got married, Sarah got sober, and the two drifted apart.
At the beginning of the play, Sarah brings home Carrick, a record-store manager and customer at the restaurant where she waits tables. It’s sort of a first date—she’s waited on him a couple of times and apparently liked the looks of him, and he, we soon find out, recognized her from an online history of the Seattle scene, with which he’s a bit obsessed. There’s a rumor going around that Carlyle’s never-released last song is out there, somewhere, and he thinks Sarah might know something about it.
But Carrick doesn’t count on truly falling for Sarah, nor on building a friendship with Jaime, who shares his tastes in music and opens up to him more than to her mother. And as he gets more and more bound up in the conflicts within this little family, the mythical last song becomes an emotional pawn that each of them uses at times to get actions or reactions out of the others.
There’s not a lot of chemistry between Ebon Moss-Bachrach (Carrick) and Amy Ryan (Sarah)—which may be why Carrick’s relationship with Jaime (Alison Pill) feels so much more vibrant and joyful than his relationship with Sarah.
But the larger problem is that I found it really difficult to understand why any of the characters, or I, should care so much about the song. Shinn seems to be trying to use characters’ relationships to music in general, and this song in particular, as a sort of shorthand to reveal their emotional lives, but I didn’t find the metaphor effective. And if you can’t buy in, as I couldn’t, to the enormous amount of affective weight placed on musical choices—the music we listen to and the music we reject, the “personal soundtracks” we store on our iPods—then the specific “last Jason Carlyle song” doesn’t mean anything. The play’s physical world is extraordinarily specific and detailed (kudos to set designer Neil Patel), but its emotional landscape feels bland and generic.
Shinn, as ever, has a sharp ear for language (especially his dead-on rendition of the psychobabble of twelve-steppers) and a lot of interesting and provocative ideas about relationships, about hero worship, about the state of the human emotional landscape in a media-driven age. But here, these ideas aren’t grounded in a story or characters with enough depth to make them more than just words.