nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 17, 2011
The first act of Christopher Shinn's new play Picked intrigued me enormously. It begins when Kevin, a young and unknown actor, meets up with John, a major film director. John wants Kevin to star in his new movie. In fact, John wants Kevin to help him create the new movie, from scratch: he's going to download (metaphorically) Kevin's mind/soul/inner being by conducting probing interviews of him with the help of an MRI-like machine that measures emotional response. From this raw material from Kevin's psyche, he plans to build a script in which both the protagonist and antagonist of an otherwise conventional space adventure flick are aspects of the same person (i.e., Kevin). And he wants Kevin to play both of these characters.
What an opportunity for this ambitious and very serious young man! And what a premise for a play that might explore anything from the pursuit of fame and its ultimate price or (as I was hoping) the ways that an egomaniacal artist like John might literally use up all of the raw material present within Kevin to create something great...though at what cost?
Alas, Shinn doesn't go in either of these directions, or any other that's particularly interesting. Act Two of Picked is a huge letdown, as Kevin collapses in on himself in an anomie that takes down the entire enterprise. Everything that crackles and sizzles in the first half of the piece—including Kevin's tantalizing relationship with Nick, the young man who eventually takes over one of Kevin's two roles in the film—feels squandered or abandoned by the end. Ultimately, I don't know what sort of statement Shinn intends to make here.
The play is crisply directed by Michael Wilson, who keeps things suspenseful and edgy even when the material fails to measure up. Rachel Hauck's elegant, sleek, minimalist set works well, especially when it surprises us by opening up in unexpected ways. The cast of five all do fine work: Tom Lipinski is very effective as Nick, especially in his early scenes, as is Liz Stauber as Jen, Kevin's girlfriend (though her role suffers from being a bit too one-note). Donna Hanover is fine in cameos as a casting director and TV host. Michael Stahl-David is empathetic and likable, at least at the beginning, as Kevin, but as his character proves more and more to be a blank slate, there's of course less for the actor to do.
The powerhouse performance here is Mark Blum's, as John. I've never seen Blum better: he captures all of the contradictions and complexity of a brilliant artist and craftsman, at once admirable for his confidence and vision and reprehensible for his insecurities and his ease at manipulating others (i.e., Kevin). Blum made me want Picked to be about John rather than Kevin.
There's lots of talent on display in all departments, including Shinn's writing. But Picked disappoints because it doesn't finally add up to very much, and its opening scenes promise a great deal more than is delivered.