Beauty on the Vine
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
April 28, 2007
Zak Berkman's new drama, Beauty on the Vine, is a play of big ideas, perhaps more so than any other I've seen this season. America's fascination with celebrity culture and personal reinvention, the bonds between parents and children (or lack thereof), and the never-ending war between Democrats and Republicans all get touched upon here to some extent. Beauty on the Vine doesn't lack ambition, and I'm happy to report it doesn't lack achievement, either. Despite a sometimes overwhelming abundance of story, Epic Theatre Center's production burns with necessity and keeps the audience in thrall throughout.
The brutal murder of Lauren, a radical right-wing radio talk show host, sends her mixed race husband, Sweet, on his own search for answers regarding her death. His investigation leads him to the convicted murderess, a middle-aged "trailer trash" woman, known only as Mother, who has no remorse. It also brings Sweet face to face with two young women, L2 and L3, who are exact physical replicas of Lauren. Turns out they went to high school with the deceased and were so enamored of her that they bought themselves hefty doses of plastic surgery for graduation. But, what's their connection to the murder, if any? And, why does Mother's shy teenage daughter speak in her own unintelligible language?
The audience meets Lauren through a series of flashbacks, and one can see why she's a polarizing figure: she's a supermodel-type beauty spewing conservative invective. One character refers to her as "a porn star for fascists." Even more inflammatory are her shameless courting of the tween/teenage girl demographic, and her marriage to a non-Caucasian man. Doesn't sound like your average Republican pundit, does she? Well, she isn't, and Beauty on the Vine peels off her layers one by one until it finally reveals her surprising core late in Act II. It turns out she's on a personal crusade and it's not the one you'd guess.
The play also tackles today's knee-jerk reflex for plastic surgery. In contemplating the root of America's obsession with physical perfection, Sweet wonders "what war are these girls fighting?" What is it about L2 and L3 that causes them to erase all outward semblances of their former selves in favor of reinvention as another? Sweet knows a little about personal reinvention: he's an orphan who got shuffled from one foster home to the next without ever knowing his ethnic heritage, or even his name. He finally named himself in honor of the thing he wanted to be.
Berkman has a lot on his mind here, all of which points towards an evident concern over the emotional health of the nation. He imagines a world where political affiliations don't matter and young girls are liberated from the insecurities that cripple them and the outside forces that hold them back. By smartly structuring Beauty on the Vine as a mystery, however, Berkman allows his message(s) to go down more smoothly with the audience. Never once do we feel preached at or beat over the head.
Director David Schweizer does exemplary work here, also emphasizing the play's mystery. He doesn't want to bombard the audience with self-importance either. By creating a moody world of sliding mirrored panels and jarring fluorescent lights, Schweizer (along with set designer Narelle Sissons and lighting designer Justin Townsend) keeps Beauty on the Vine focused on Sweet's search for the truth, which helps pull the play's other thematic elements together.
In a remarkably versatile star-turn performance, Olivia Wilde shines as Lauren and her two doppelgangers. Even though all three women look the same, she manages to make them all convincingly different from one another without veering into stereotypes. Victor Slezak is both moving and a little frightening as Lauren's image-conscious father, Daniel. And Howard W. Overshown's solid leading-man performance as Sweet gives the production its heart and soul. The other cast members—Helen Coxe, Barbara Garrick, and Jessica Richardson—all give splendid performances, as well.
Few plays ask as many questions as Beauty on the Vine does, and even fewer still attempt to answer them. But, this play does both, and that is its real strength: it has a point of view, and unapologetically sticks to it. You may not agree with everything Beauty on the Vine says, but you won't soon forget it. This is vital, ambitious theatre that deserves to be seen and encouraged.