Following Shinn's debut in London at age 20 with Four (presented as part of the Royal Court Theatre's young writers program) and a series of high-profile productions of that play and others at Manhattan Theatre Club and at this theater, the temptation now is to expect more mature work from him despite his youth. But the enjoyment in watching Shinn emerge, in contrast to Suzan-Lori Parks or Sarah Kane exploding on the scene with powerful innovations, is in observing him carefully fuse his influences with delicacy and restraint.
In What Didn't Happen, Shinn's trademark delicacy unfortunately undermines a play full of allusions to searing dramatic events that are not portrayed and, as the title suggests, possibly didn't happen. Rather than adding gravity to the proceedings, this device prompts confusion and feels coy. While his other plays satisfy with their engaging characters and little action, Shinn's attempt here to get under the skin of people without depicting their crucial moments is frustrating.
As the action begins, Scott (Matt McGrath), a young television producer, welcomes colleague and ex-lover Emily (Suzanne Cryer) to his country home. As the lonely local boy Jeff (Matt Cowell) helps clean the rain gutters, Scott fields questions from him about his unseen daughter Jamie, who hides in her room upstairs watching television obsessively -- all CNN, all the time. We later learn that Jamie is Scott's daughter by another unseen character, who may or may not be in Europe. As the scene ends with Emily persuading Scott to work rather than flirt, we don't fully understand this couple's dynamic -- and we never do.
The next scene takes place at the same house six years before, in the summer of 1993. We meet Dave (Steven Skybell), a middle-aged, well-educated, white novelist and the owner of this country house at that time. He is writing another of his books about topics removed from his world, such as the Latin experience on the Lower East Side. Played with brilliantly articulated turmoil by Skybell, Dave has been hiding for three months from his relationship with Elaine, a New York stage actress (Annalee Jefferies).
On the evening which makes up most of the play, Dave has finally invited Elaine to the cabin, where he has been mentoring the writing efforts of a college student he hired to help around the place -- none other than Scott. Elaine's arrival is marred for her by his presence, as well as that of another stranger, Alan, a professor of psychiatry (Robert Hogan); Peter, a successful novelist (Chris Noth) and mutual friend of Elaine and Dave, rounds out the group. They all hold forth on their ambitions, their fears, and their pleasures with charming self-bemusement. The neo-nihilist Peter flippantly responds to Scott's praise for his recent book over its movie version with "I preferred the film myself. The check, at least."
Among the allusive details which emerge in these scenes is that Scott, who displays a penchant for hot-headedness, has written a promising short story that ends with a shocking, presumably violent act which Dave gently suggests is melodramatic and immature. We also learn that the good doctor Alan (who has brought pills for Dave that are implied to be anti-depressants) was Scott's professor in a psych-lit class. Elaine's first impressions of Scott as "shrewd" are supplemented by Alan's report of Scott's questionable academic ethics, all of which makes the writing tutor more than a little wary of his goodwill toward his pupil. And Dave is already feeling overwhelmed by the world, concerned as he is about a perceived complacency among his peers, an increasing breakdown of genuine communication between people, and the willingness of so many to "de-educate themselves" and indulge in mindless pleasures.
Between visits to the lake, dinner, and pre- and post-prandials, we get the best parts of Shinn's piece, a set of eloquently self-exposing speeches for his major characters. We hear Scott questioning the value of an inner life in an age that moves too fast for contemplation. We entertain Alan's fear of a future in which all psychiatry may be reduced to chemistry and his distaste for a younger generation that rarely reads books or looks up from a computer monitor. We learn of Elaine's crisis-of-relevance while playing Hedda Gabler, resulting in her decision to perform only new plays. And we hear of Peter's encounter with an earthy, wise, black female reader who imparts the wisdom of realizing "how easy it is to be...fine." While this last bit is somewhat facile and there is a curmudgeonly aspect to each of the perspectives, Shinn's talent for having his characters communicate their pain in eloquent terms is utterly clear.
The problem is what didn't happen, what Shinn has decided not to share with us. For instance, when Elaine tells Dave of her feelings about their lack of privacy upon their reunion, Dave is apologetic -- but we never learn what has caused him to isolate himself this way. When Scott "acts out" later, we don't know what it's supposed to mean, though we feel it's significant. (The playwright is casting off his influences and mentors here; Tony Kushner is not afraid of explicit drama, and Ibsen let us see the door slam and hear the gunshot, as did Chekhov.)
That Scott ends up being the only character given explicit resolution is unfortunate, given that all of the actors -- directed with aplomb by Michael Wilson -- are skilled. Among the terrific performances, the talented Matt McGrath sounds the one strange note as Scott, employing a demeanor that many young actors of today bring to confused young men -- a continual, sheepish surprise so complete that it makes a guileful character like this one seem implausibly air-headed. The script never gives McGrath or the director much more to go on, so the actor's transition from hotheaded, unknown writer to successful television producer makes us wonder: Did he, at some point, appropriate material not his own? Has he become more competent and happy because he's on anti-depressants, as he casually mentions? Does Shinn want us to feel that Scott is ambivalent about having sold out?
The last line of the play is a reference to Scott's unseen daughter -- still hiding in her room and watching CNN -- who might have been the most interesting character onstage. She can't come forward and claim our attention because that would be something that happened, rather than something that didn't happen.