|A PLAY WITH BEAUTY ON ITS MIND AND MEAT ON ITS BONES
by Harvey Perr
published May 18, 2007
Beauty on the Vine
now playing at the Clurman on Theatre Row
closes June 3, 2007
Zak Berkman’s “Beauty on the Vine” is not only one of the most interesting American plays to come along this season, it is at least three of the most interesting plays. There’s the one about the investigation of the murder of a Republican talk-show hostess who is a cross between Ann Coulter and Paris Hilton. There’s another about two teen-age girls who elect cosmetic surgery in order to look like their idols, a phenomenon of what the author calls Lindsey Lohan America; in this play, one is quite willing to become her idol, the other is madly seeking to escape the connection. There is yet another play about the man the hostess marries, a man of color, who is in some sort of limbo because he is neither black nor white. And come to think of it, there’s also the more common but still intricate play about fathers and daughters as well as mothers and daughters. With so much on its plate, “Beauty on the Vine” seems crammed to overflowing with ideas and, at the same time, seems to not yet have coalesced into a single finished work. Since Berkman not only has a lot on his mind, but a very expressive way with language as well, it seems to one reviewer, at least, that it behooves him to continue to work on the play until it becomes the truly brilliant play it is very close to being.
Words, often witty and even wise, come pouring out, but eventually stop the play in its tracks, particularly in the second act when we want things to get more directly to its heart as well as to its climax. And the going back and forth in time is intriguing at times, irritating and frustrating at others, stopping the forward motion when we are eager for it to advance. Some scenes are so sharply etched that, like rain which brings sunshine at the end of a cloudy day, they clarify and illuminate, and they are then followed by scenes that muddy things up again. Still, what the Epic Theatre Center production does, under the sometimes eye-popping direction of David Schweizer, is to give the play its due and make stunningly clear what works and what does not.
What definitely works is the performance or, rather, three performances of Olivia Wilde as the original Lauren Chickering and her two look-alikes. What makes her work so exciting is that she conveys so vividly the bold differences in the three women hiding under the same face and she does it without losing an ounce of credibility in any of the characterizations. Best of all, these are real women uncannily realized with a sly comic edge, drawing us in and, at the same time, scaring us off. The subtle things Schweizer gets out of Ms. Wilde and the rest of the excellent cast provides the play with the nuances it deserves. And there should be mention, too, of Niorelle Sissions’ glass and plastic set design, which creates more mirror images which wittily define the play. Zak Berkman’s play is in good hands. It is now up to him to bring it to cohesive and satisfying fruition.
NOTE: David Strathairn will join the cast on May 29 for the final week of its run