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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Mark Blum and Michael Stahl-David.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

What if your big break came and you blew it? That's one of the more unsettling questions at the center of Christopher Shinn's new play, Picked, which just opened at the Vineyard Theatre, as well as the one theatregoers are most likely to relate to. Facing a potentially life-changing opportunity, and discovering that it found you wanting is one of the most dispiriting experiences—or crippling fears—that can assault anyone who strives to achieve. Shinn, in his finest stage drama to date, doesn't shy away from every difficult facet of this notion, even if he fails to make it as universally accessible as he might.

In the taut two-hour play, which has been directed with focused sensitivity by Michael Wilson, Shinn looks at this question as filtered through issues of artists' insularity and insecurity. Kevin (Michael Stahl-David), a good-looking young actor who's been subsisting on bit parts in Hollywood but has yet to break through, arrives to interview with director John (Mark Blum), a James Cameron–style A-list director who just released a new blockbuster: a shades-of-gray parable about American imperialism re-envisioned as a popcorn flick about alien invasion. John's next film will build an entire sci-fi extravaganza around an unknown's personality, structuring the work so it's impossible to tell where role ends and performer begins.

There are numerous strings attached. If Kevin stars, he can't tell anyone what he's doing. He must commit himself from rehearsals to opening, taking no other jobs that could tarnish his pristine public persona. And, to help John fashion the script, he must submit to weeks of brain scanning using a special machine that will help the director explore the deepest reaches of Kevin's psyche—even those he most wants to hide. Kevin, who cares more about the truthfulness of acting than anything else, agrees to the proposal and moves to the back burner everything else about this career and life, including his long-term live-in girlfriend Jen (Liz Stauber).

Of course things don't quite unfold as planned. After starting filming on the project, about a spaceship captain who must save his colonization vessel by defeating the lookalike robot that's sabotaging their mission, John decides that Kevin alone can't quite convey the contrasting complexities he's looking for between the two. So he brings in Nick (Tom Lipinski), whom Kevin beat out, to take over as the robot.

The two hit it off, but it's the first event in a series that begins dismantling Kevin's life. The strain of being half-replaced in the movie, being ignored by newfound friend Nick once shooting wraps, and his inability to find any jobs at all after the movie fails to make him a household name starts Kevin questioning—endlessly—whether he could have done anything better, or even just different.

In Act I, Shinn overdoses on exposition and relies too heavily on Kevin's musing on the details of his craft, fretting over the purpose and effects of those brain scans, and dissecting the wisdom of pushing actors even more inside themselves—all intriguing ideas that don't quite rivet. The fixture with the most flesh-and-blood potential, Jen, is perfunctorily drawn and acted—from the first scene, it's clear she's only around to serve as a slow-implode catalyst for Kevin, and it's just a matter of time until they're fighting and she's walking.

But after intermission, Shinn hunkers down and dissects the intricacies of the dilemma with an unforgiving thoughtfulness. As Kevin's gentle spiral becomes a black hole, Shinn develops more original and involving concerns that nudge the play into full blossom as a powerful character study about how easy it is to accidentally handicap ourselves on the threshold of our greatest triumphs. Anyone who's ever wanted something so much that it literally hurt, but was unable to salve the pain with useful action, will see their troubles reflected in Kevin.

As long as Shinn sticks to this program, he turns out work that, especially in the fraught final scenes, rates as the most genuine and honest theatre he's yet revealed, far beyond the manufactured outrage of Dying City or his ill-conceived dumbing-down of Hedda Gabler for Roundabout. With the script hauntingly orchestrated by Wilson, and Rachel Hauck (set) and Russell H. Champa (lights) establishing just the right science-fiction–meets–fame fantasy designs, the production also satisfies as one of fragrant style and dark class.

Stahl-David, best known for the film Cloverfield but also memorable from Roundabout's 2007 play, The Overwhelming, is thoroughly likeable as Kevin, convincing as both the forward-thinking heartthrob on the rise and the scared boy who has never learned how to live outside his own head. Blum presents John as a man of solid, centerless ambition, an empty shell of a creative force; that, combined with the actor's anxious, parched sense of humor, is exactly what the role needs. Lipinski is initially a little stiff as Nick, but eases into his even darker analogue of Kevin with awkward grace. Donna Hanover is charming, soft slickness as a vapid TV show host and an understanding casting director who witnesses Kevin's downfall firsthand.

His decline, which begins as he toes superstardom, does not end where either he or you can envision it. Shinn keeps you guessing until the very end, about not just where Kevin will land but who he'll discover he truly is; that's no small achievement for a work that could have been merely an indictment of Hollywood's tendency to anonymize unique talents. Beneath it all, he shows us that getting what you want from work and from life is a constant struggle, and one you won't always win. Yet, if addressed appropriately, highs and lows alike can make you into who you should be—even if you're not aware you need to be someone else. Picked isn't perfect, but it illuminates humanity's hunger for acceptance and perfection, and satiation on compromise, with artisan-level accuracy.

Through May 15
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15 Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Vineyard Theatre

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