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Review: Where the Mountain Meets the Sea and a Strange Father-Son Road Trip

Jeff Augustin teams up with the Bengsons at Manhattan Theatre Club.

Chris Myers and Billy Eugene Jones star in Jeff Augustin's Where the Mountain Meets the Sea, with music by Shaun and Abigail Bengson. It is directed by Joshua Kahan Brody for MTC at New York City Center.
(© Matthew Murphy)

In a country as expansive as the United States, there is as much room to find yourself as there is to hide. That's apparent in Where the Mountain Meets the Sea, Jeff Augustin's new play about a frosty father-son relationship, which features music by Abigail and Shaun Bengson. Now making its New York premiere with Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center, it's a bittersweet way to spend 80 minutes.

It tells the story of Jean (Billy Eugene Jones), a schoolteacher who leaves Haiti in search of opportunities in the United States. He lands in Miami and finds work as an airport baggage handler. He also falls in love with Natalie, a fellow Haitian immigrant and educator. They take a cross-country road trip from Miami to Los Angeles while Natalie is pregnant. Decades later, their son Jonah (Chris Myers) takes that same trip in reverse to collect his father's ashes, searching for some connection to the man with whom he mostly shared silence.

Jones and Myers easily convey the cultural chasm between father and son in their performances: Speaking with a delicate Haitian accent, Jones's Jean is charmingly wide-eyed and enthusiastic about America, especially its folk music, which reminds him of the "Moun Mon" songs of his native land.

Abigail Bengson, Shaun Bengson, Chris Myers, and Billy Eugene Jones appear in Jeff Augustin's Where the Mountain Meets the Sea off-Broadway.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Myers's Jonah, on the other hand, is far too Americanized and educated to be enthusiastic about anything, something Myers communicates through a consistently mellow vocal delivery. A gay PhD candidate in linguistics, he had good reason to hide large parts of his life from a father who grew up in a country where sexual minorities are widely frowned upon. But could he ever really hide, or were both just quietly ignoring the obvious? The gulf between them is both a symbol of this family's upward mobility and a tragic failure to communicate between two individuals who have more in common than they realize.

Augustin (whose mother is a Haitian immigrant and teacher) is the author of The New Englanders and Little Children Dream of God, a play about Haitian immigrants that also starred Chris Myers.

Under the sturdy direction of Joshua Kahan Brody, Where the Mountain Meets the Sea is a much tidier play than that earlier effort. The story is communicated entirely through soliloquys spoken into hand mics, with father and son confessing their thoughts and regrets to the audience as they pass each other like two cars traveling in opposite directions on a lonely highway. Augustin's language is rich and thoughtful, finding little moments of harmony between the two characters without underlining them with a red pen.

The Bengsons (who have composed the theatrical concerts Hundred Days and The Lucky Ones step into small supporting roles while underscoring the story with their haunting and heartfelt music. The songs are better at reinforcing a mood than they are at driving the narrative forward, but they are appropriately dreamlike for a story that conjures memories and dismisses them just as quickly.

Echoes and sound-looping serve as a force multiplier and give this piece a ghostly quality (pristine sound design by Ben Truppin-Brown). Oscillating between memories whispered in public radio voice (Myers is particularly good at this) and eclectic folk music, Where the Mountain Meets the Sea often feels like a live taping of a very special episode of A Prairie Home Companion.

Shaun Bengson and Chris Myers dance in Where the Mountain Meets the Sea off-Broadway.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Brody's production uses a less-is-more approach to keep this a largely auditory experience: Arnulfo Maldonado's set is a wooden amphitheater onstage, which we observe from our regular seats in the house (I wonder if this would have been a more impactful experience if it were performed with the audience seated in the amphitheater, like in last season's Oratorio for Living Things). Stacey Derosier's lighting takes its cues from the music, with the cyclorama at one point shifting colors with the beat, like the world's trippiest sunset.

Costume designer Dominique Fawn Hill further captures the cultural difference between Jean and Jonah, dressing the father in smartly fitted trousers and a button-down shirt, while Jonah dons the messy toddler look favored by this country's hipster intelligentsia. Not all upward mobility constitutes improvement.

Simple and heartfelt, Where the Mountain Meets the Sea is likely to resonate deeply with some audience members: As someone whose father died in my young adulthood, just as we were settling into an accord following years of adolescent friction, I could feel this play's expression of grief and regret in my bones. Even if that's not your experience, it's easy to get lost in the music and mystery.

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