Migration doesn’t necessarily have a set endpoint. Looking for belonging in an unfamiliar place, and lingering over memories of what’s been left behind, can result in a perpetually itinerant state of mind. For the Haitian schoolteacher who legally gains passage to the United States in “Where the Mountain Meets the Sea,” that means giving up a fulfilling vocation to handle strangers’ baggage at the Miami airport while hoping to find love and start a family.
It’s evident that Jean (played with an almost childlike wonder by Billy Eugene Jones) gets his wish, because he’s joined onstage by his son, Jonah (Chris Myers), who has moved across the country to study linguistics at the University of California, Los Angeles — another act of flight toward the unknown. Set apart in time and place, father and son each carry a microphone and address the audience in alternating confessional monologues. In Jonah’s present, Jean is already dead, his ashes waiting to be retrieved and spread. Jonah intends to retrace in reverse a road trip his parents took from Florida to California when his mother was pregnant, to experience America as they did and perhaps understand something about his roots.
In a bit of cross-pollination, that heritage includes folk music from the American South, or what Jean calls “mountain music,” which offered him echoes of Haiti and became a conduit for both the melancholy and joy of his adventures in displacement. This part-concert-style staging of Jeff Augustin’s play, a Manhattan Theater Club production that opened on Wednesday at New York City Center, is performed with music by Abigail and Shaun Bengson, a husband-and-wife duo known as the Bengsons whose musical setup on the blond-wood, semicircular set (by Arnulfo Maldonado) includes acoustic banjo and guitar. Their mournful, evocative songs — about longing, loss and unresolved feelings — are interspersed throughout the men’s recollections, punching up the emotional tenor.
Father and son recall parallel journeys that reflect shared experiences of otherness and their psychic separation. Jean remarks on moments of alienation he experienced as a Black immigrant, and Jonah points to those he encounters as a Black gay man. Both relay their histories by way of past lovers, an illustration of mutual appetites. But the depth of their characterizations are unevenly balanced, and the play is considerably more insightful about the psychology of its immigrant father than of his queer son. While Jean’s talk of lost loves tends to reveal more about who he is and what he wants, Jonah’s descriptions of conquests linger on surface details — a ginger daddy’s Haitian-blue eyes, a Nigerian’s lean muscular arms — that tend to deflect attention away from their observer. In performance, too, Jones lends Jean a warm and wistful soul-searching quality, while Meyers’s more mannered take keeps Jonah at a distance.
Under the direction of Joshua Kahan Brody, “Where the Mountain Meets the Sea” feels like a kind of formal experiment, combining spoken text, live music and, occasionally, freestyle movement to capture the nomadic experience of building a life without a homeland. The 80-minute show is most poignant when these elements work in concert rather than run alongside each other, as when Myers and Shaun Bengson (stepping in as a guy Jonah meets on the road) engage in a loose-limbed dance-off, or when Jones’s Jean sings a forlorn refrain. But at other times, the connective thread between the show’s different modes of performance feel tenuous and less than fully realized.
That formal fragmentation, and the fact that Jean and Jonah don’t directly interact, highlights the ache and frustration of their estrangement. But at least some of that frustration may be passed along to the audience, particularly since Jonah’s interior life remains elusive even as he assumes a kind of dishy posture. The plainest glimpse we get into what he wants comes from sentiments that his father regrets leaving unspoken — that his son is smart, beautiful and enough — the kind of obvious wish fulfillment it would be tough to begrudge anyone, even a relative stranger.
Where the Mountain Meets the Sea
Through Nov. 27 at New York City Center Stage I, Manhattan; manhattantheatreclub.com. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.
Source: NY Times