On the Mountain is so skillfully written, and so gracefully staged and acted, that its willed smallness seems almost infuriating. Christopher Shinn is a writer who likes to notate encounters precisely, but here, as in other plays of his I’ve seen, the result is a tepid little so-what rather than an intense miniature that reverberates with larger meanings. The piece is fixated on the short-story form: Its plot is a generation-reversed version of The Aspern Papers, with a mother-daughter struggle at its core, and the daughter is a budding short-story writer, one of whose stories we hear, in a lengthy summary by someone else; the half-resolved fade-out ending has the feel of what used to be thought of as the typical New Yorker story back in the ’50s.
In fact, that’s the curious aspect of Shinn’s writing: He seems to aspire to be the newest of the new, with an attendant arrogance—this isn’t personal, I’m speaking of the sense the plays convey—about how different and difficult things are for today’s youth. On the Mountain is full of business with cell phones and iPods and the Internet, and intense conversations about the relative meaning and quality of various rock artists. But the dramatic form, the tone, and the minor-key emotional substance all feel like some ancient throwback—Broadway and TV were crowded with plays like this in the ’50s. There have already been three stage versions of The Aspern Papers; none has succeeded. James, who wrote many plays in an effort to succeed in the theater, never adapted it himself. It’s droll to imagine what he might say about the dead literary genius of his story becoming, in Shinn’s version, a Kurt Cobain-type suicided rock star, who has left behind, with his estranged first wife, one last unpublished song.
The smallness is sad because the cast is so good and Shinn’s dialogue so often pointed and astute. Amy Ryan as the mother, Ebon Moss-Bachrach as the intruding admirer, and Alison Pill as the daughter are all doing sensitively etched, humane work. They deserve a play with some reach to it, and Shinn, who has been working this vein steadily, ought to try stretching himself. I’d like to see him write a play set in the 18th century, no electronic appliances or amplified music allowed.