|WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE SEA|
Fathers and sons. Destined to take different life journeys, failing to fully understand each other until it’s too late -- but eventually winding up in the same place. Yes, it’s hardly an original story that’s being told in Jeff Augustin’s subtly affecting and superbly acted “Where the Mountains Meet the Sea,” now at Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage I, although its form is somewhat unusual.
This 80-minute play consists of two monologues, told in alternating sequences, by Jean (Billy Eugene Jones), who arrives in Florida from Haiti as a young man in 1978, and his son Jonah (Chris Myers), born in the USA, an openly gay man still searching for love, contentment, and, yes, a surrogate “daddy” at age 34.
Also on hand, providing both commentary and entertainment, are the folk band The Bengsons (married singer-songwriters Shaun and Abigail Bengson). One thing Jean and Jonah have in common, even if they never get to acknowledge it to each other, is a love of “mountain music,” such as the duo’s intoxicating “Oh My Love.” Meanwhile, the pair’s other tunes seem tailored to the characters’ moods and situations, including the haunting “Made to Warm Your Bed.”
Its lack of length aside, the work feels slighter than it should because we never really learn as much about these men as we could. Jean – played with great warmth by Jones -- races through his life history, as relatively ordinary as it might be, a little too eager to get us to the finish line. We could hear more about his relationships with other women before he meets Jonah’s (never-seen) mother, Natalie – also a Haitian immigrant – or the progression of his career. Moreover, Jean barely discusses his life as a single father to Jonah for three decades; the most salient detail we get, late in the play, is his disapproval of his son’s homosexuality. It’s a sketch, not a portrait.
The same can be said of Jonah, whom Myers imbues with complete honesty. There’s almost too much emphasis on his sexual life, from his open relationship in LA with an older man, a brief but intense affair with the ginger-haired Karl, and eventually his connection with Adedayo, whom he meets while on a cross-country trip from California to Florida. We barely discover anything else about Jonah, like what he’s studying (linguistics), what else he does in L.A, or what he feels for his father beside disdain for Jean’s old green Cadillac. It’s doubly sad because eventually Jonah, initially a bit defensive, proves himself to be witty and worldly.
While director Joshua Kanan Brody gets kudos for guiding these actors’ first-rate performances, he and Augustin have completely miscalculated in choosing to give this intimate piece a rather vast production. The play would work brilliantly in small black box (like MTC Stage II, for instance) rather than in such a large venue. Arnulfo Maldonado on-stage amphitheater, while impressive to behold, dwarfs the performers, and its empty center space is barely used. (Indeed, after being given one glimpse of Steph Paul’s choreography, I would not have minded seeing some more of it.)
Finally, the rather literal, too-large backdrop of the mountains meeting the sea is just unnecessary. A picture does not always take the place of 1,000 words.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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