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Beauty On The Vine

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Olivia Wilde and Howard W. Overshown
Photo by Tao Ruspoli.

The mirrors you see onstage upon arriving in the Clurman Theatre are no accident. They really are of the pseudo-magical variety they resemble, equally as capable of reflecting your image back at you as they are becoming transparent to show what's hidden behind them.

In short, set designer Narelle Sissons has provided the perfect scenic metaphor for Zak Berkman's Beauty on the Vine, a highly engaging but finally frustrating new play being produced by Epic Theatre Center. For both that wall of mirrors and the people Berkman captures, what you see is only occasionally what you get. Your eyes may tell the truth or they may deceive, you can look at one thing in two ways or two people in one way, but only your instincts and your heart truly allow you to determine what's real and what's fictitious.

Assuming, of course, even they can be trusted. And that's difficult, Berkman tells us, in a world filled with so many dark clouds that any individual silver linings they may possess are all but obliterated. Yet for the people trapped in orbit around radio-star-on-the-rise Lauren Chickering (the excellent Olivia Wilde) it's doubly complicated: To know of her is to either love her or hate her, but regardless of how close you get, she's always half a step away from being someone else.

Is she what she appears to be, a gorgeous, conservative shock jock aiming her messages squarely at the ears of teenage girls? Is she, as her father Daniel (Victor Slezak) believes, still in desperate need of being protected from the harsh realities of life she addresses for others? Could she be a menace to her target audience, unwittingly filling young women's heads with ideals of attractiveness they can't possibly match? Or is her entire life an elaborate ruse designed to ensnare others just long enough to manipulate them?

After meeting Lauren at the airport, Sweet (Howard W. Overshown) slowly grows to believe it's the latter, as her public and private personae only intermittently jell. But he's capable of fighting her to a stalemate with her own weaponry, which she respects; others are less able, leading to far less happy immediate results. Cases in point: the two girls so enamored of Lauren's flawless face that they underwent surgery to look exactly like her, and the frustrated mother (Barbara Garrick) whose daughter (Jessica Richardson) seems on the verge of becoming a third.

Berkman and his director, David Schweizer, adeptly juggle all relationships that form the sad tapestry of self-image issues on which Beauty on the Vine is built, from the tenuous mother and daughter connection Garrick and Richardson present to the racial uncertainty Overshown's ethnically enigmatic Sweet literally wears on his face. And despite the scenes' arrangement as stones along Sweet's stream of consciousness, nothing ever confuses: Wilde's magnetic performances as Lauren and her two imitators are so distinct and so detailed that there's never any question of what's happening when, or why. Overshown's performance matches hers, so smoothly natural and genial you understand immediately why an attraction would form between the two, a crucial foundation for this story.

What's less obvious is why Berkman did not consider his tightly constructed story about the risks and consequences of undue adulation, whether from nearby or from afar, enough of a play on its own. An eighth character, Sweet's friend Ellie (Helen Coxe), sheds no new light on Lauren's central cipher; Ellie has her own vaguely related concerns - she wants to have a baby via artificial insemination, but how to choose the right frozen father? - but spends most of her time restating in more general terms what's been better established elsewhere.

Worse, though, is Berkman's ultimate treatment of Lauren: His delving into her political beliefs and her tactics for unleashing them on the masses eventually turns up an extra layer of artifice that takes her masquerade into the realm of the unbelievable. By revealing too much about her, Berkman robs her of the enigmatic allure that not only drives the play but separates her from so many other bleeding-heart Republicans in Name Only that have shown up in recent political plays.

But once we see her true face, it's that much more difficult to sympathize with her choices or the tragic road they lead her down. This almost instantaneously transforms Beauty on the Vine from a complex jewel of a play into a foam-covered mallet; Berkman's likely goal was to present Lauren as an important light threatened with extinguishment all too soon, but instead ends up supporting his prime contention that if you dig too deep, more often than not you're not going to like what you find.

Beauty On The Vine
Through June 3
Clurman Theater, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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