Talent and contradictions

Times Staff Writer

Talking to Christopher Shinn, it quickly becomes apparent that his plays are fueled by high ideals and intensely held convictions -- and by his own contradictions.

At 29, he is unabashedly convinced of his work’s excellence and has plenty of complimentary reviews to back him up. But while declaring in a quiet, earnest voice that “the quality of my plays is undeniable,” Shinn freely admits that these outpourings of self-confident, ego-fortified talent stem from a probably inexhaustible well of anxieties and insecurities that require five-times-weekly tending by a psychoanalyst.

Some of his personal quandaries have been deflected obliquely into “On the Mountain,” having its premiere at South Coast Repertory this weekend -- the first West Coast production for Shinn, whose plaudits and major-stage exposure have been confined thus far to London, New York and his hometown of Hartford, Conn., where, as a teenager, he saw Jose Rivera’s “Marisol” and first realized that one could “write a play about the world as it was.”


“On the Mountain” is the sixth full-length play in a fast-moving but still not-over-the-hump career launched six years ago, with an acclaimed production of “Four” at London’s prestigious Royal Court Theatre. Shinn, then 23, was on the verge of abandoning playwriting for novels when the Royal Court latched onto the unsolicited script he had written as a 20-year-old undergraduate at New York University.

“On the Mountain” offers its own contradictions. It may be the first play to feature an Apple iPod as a crucial plot device, and the first on a major stage to conjure the fictionalized ghost of Kurt Cobain. The action, set in 2003, arises from the nine-years-previous suicide of Jason Carlyle, a heroin-plagued Seattle grunge-rock star and sad-voice-of-his-generation.

Despite these youth-appealing touches, the play is a work of old-fashioned stage realism (including the proverbial kitchen sink, where glasses of water are poured and uneaten dishes of ice cream are rinsed). And the frame of Shinn’s story predates by 101 years the release of the first album Cobain sang on as frontman of the band Nirvana. The playwright’s model was “The Aspern Papers,” an 1888-vintage short novel by Henry James in which a superfan of a great poet moves in with the dead man’s paramour, hoping to finagle from her his unpublished love letters. Shinn turns the early-19th century poet into an early-1990s grunge rocker, and the missing love letters into a never-released CD he recorded and left at his death for the woman he loved before fame and a Courtney Love stand-in came along.

South Coast commissioned Shinn in 1999 after he had won accolades for “Four,” which depicts sexual longings in pairings both gay and straight. Assessing “Four,” Michael Billington of the Guardian hailed Shinn’s “true dramatist’s gift” and David Benedict of the Independent dubbed it “the work of a seriously gifted playwright ... without a doubt, the debut of the year.” Reviewing a subsequent play, “What Didn’t Happen,” Ben Brantley of the New York Times praised Shinn’s “highly polished eloquence” and concluded “his focus on that indefinable ‘something’ ... makes him a playwright to cherish.”

Tim Sanford, artistic director of Playwrights Horizons, a New York City theater that has done two previous plays by Shinn and will mount its own production of “On the Mountain” next month, finds a moral fiber in Shinn’s willingness to face life’s dark realities without lapsing into fashionable cynicism or nihilism. “His characters are striving to fit in and connect, and yet the difficulties of connecting and the harshness of the world these people have to make their way in is fully rendered and believable.”

It wasn’t until 2003, after his money-manager father’s death from leukemia at age 61, that the Wethersfield, Conn.-raised Shinn began to deliver on his SCR commission -- the first of several he has received from major theaters, including the Mark Taper Forum. Out of his sadness came themes that reside in “On the Mountain”: the consequences of trying to submerge one’s past and one’s grief, and what it’s like to doubt whether one has ever been loved.


Of the Seattle grunge-rock motif he says, “Kurt Cobain’s music gave a voice to sadness, and I didn’t feel that voice in the world I was living in 2003. I think I felt a nostalgia for a time when it felt that sadness was more accepted by the culture, when Nirvana could be the most important band in America.”

The acclaim Shinn has enjoyed from productions in New York and London goes only so far; the breakthrough play that hopscotches regional stages nationwide, bringing greater name recognition and steadier royalties, has eluded him.

“I need it financially. I just barely, barely make it,” says Shinn, who teaches playwriting part time at New York’s New School and in NYU’s continuing education program to help swing the rent in his shared apartment on the Lower East Side. His almost daily therapy sessions, he notes, come deeply discounted, from a shrink-in-training.

“I’m too good a writer not to be rewarded financially,” the lanky playwright declares, sitting upright now after spending most of an interview slumped semi-horizontally in a swivel chair. After a long pause, as if mulling whether this assertion should stand without some hint of humility or self-doubt, he adds, “That’s what I tell myself.”

Shinn feels he is too much the pure artist to write for film and TV, where the pay can be lucrative, but creative control is lacking. He loves film, but says his “few forays” as a screenwriter for hire taught him that he couldn’t stomach working that way.

The art-versus-expediency debate comes up wrenchingly near the end of “On the Mountain”: Was the Cobain figure just a cash-craving junkie fraud, singing for his fix, or an uncompromising emotional sounding board for the unarticulated content of his listeners’ hearts?


“I think art is about life and death always, and that’s why we care so much about movies and argue about them,” Shinn says. “We know it’s not just a movie, it’s not just abstract. It’s where we live every day of our lives.”


‘On the Mountain’

Where: South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Ends: Jan. 23

Price: $27-$56

Contact: (714) 708-5555