27 April 2011
Picked by Christopher Shinn
When I saw Christopher Shinn's new play, Picked, in New York last week, I had no intention of writing about it. Chris and I were at NYU together for a couple years, we've stayed in touch a bit over the last decade, and I've enjoyed following his career. I don't like writing about friends' work, because anything short of "It's the most perfect and brilliant piece of writing since the invention of the alphabet," feels in some way like a betrayal.
But most of the reviews for the play have been so shallow and superficial that I just want to line up the New York theatre reviewers and whack them all upside the head. Maybe not all -- Ben Brantley's review in The Times is thoughtful and intelligent. Beyond that review, though, it's thin pickings.
I'm not looking for positive reviews -- sure, I liked the play, I like Chris, I would like the world to agree with me on both points. But I'll take a thoughtful and insightful negative review over a vapid positive review any day. Most of the reviews I read of the show were vaguely negative, sort of middling. But the reasons they offered for their vague negativity and their middling were banal, suggesting the reviewer didn't really pay a whole lot of attention. And the positive reviews weren't really much better. (No, I'm not going to link to them; they were too enervating to make me want to seek them out again. You, too, can use Google if you're curious.)
I didn't take notes and I didn't go in thinking I'd write about the show, so this is just a collection of remembered impressions after one viewing, not a review. I feel compelled to say something to acknowledge the complexity of the play, and the complexity of my response to it (both good and bad), because I haven't seen enough other people do so yet.
Picked tells the story of a young actor named Kevin (Michael Stahl-David) who attracts the attention of a Hollywood director, John (Mark Blum), who bears a certain resemblance to James Cameron (the movie he wants Kevin to star in is called, if I remember correctly, Harbor, which happens to have the same amount of letters as Avatar, and also to end in r). The first scene offers Blum lots of opportunities to chew the scenery -- as one of my companions at the show said, "This is the sort of thing actors should have to pay to get to perform!" John is grandiose, egomaniacal, yet also somewhat endearing, and his logorrhea is a magnificent bit of writing. At the performance I saw, Blum seemed to struggle to find the performance, but once he did, he was mesmerizing, giving John a vocal and physical presence that dominated and dazzled Kevin enough that we could understand why Kevin would give in to the somewhat bizarre propositions John makes about the movie. It's the sort of stuff ambitious actors might want to excerpt for audition monologues in the years to come...
The next few scenes develop Kevin's participation in the process of making the film and show his relationship with his girlfriend, Jen, played by Liz Stauber. This was actually the dullest element of the play for me, but without having read the script I don't know if my problem lies with the conception of the character or the performance. Stauber's performance is easily the weakest in the play (or was, at least, on the day I saw it) -- stiff, unsubtle, ungraceful; the sort of performance you expect during a second or third rehearsal. Because I found her so uninteresting to watch, I didn't pay enough attention to the character to know how much was or wasn't in the lines.
This contrasted quite noticeably with the really excellent performance by Tom Lipinski as Nick, another actor in the movie. Nick is a somewhat mysterious, ambiguous character, and Lipinski mines that mystery and ambiguity deftly in a performance suffused with lightness (think Calvino). This is the sort of performance that deserves awards -- the sort of performance that is very, very hard to accomplish and yet, when pulled off skilfully, looks effortless. (It's the sort of performance that often doesn't get awards because, indeed, it looks effortless.) You can see the effect in the line readings -- Lipinski doesn't deliver his lines in expected ways, but they feel fresh and organic. (Describing a performance of such subtlety is nearly impossible, at least for me, and so I resort to making him sound like a vegetable from Whole Foods.) Donna Hanover is similarly excellent in some small roles in the play; her few minutes on stage are some of the most vivid in my memory of the show, perhaps because I kept wishing she'd been cast as Jen...
Stahl-David's performance was the most uneven when I saw the show, and it's one of the things I wish the reviewers had delved into more, because there were real highs and lows that deserved attention and analysis. (Instead, most of the reviews treated the performance as if it were completely consistent. Maybe it was when they saw it.) In the first act, Stahl-David delivered as sharp a performance as I could imagine for that role, but he also mostly didn't have to do a lot except react to the people around him. The second act was more problematic, both for the play as a whole and for him as an actor. In the first act, I could believe him as a thoughtful and earnest young actor, one who doesn't entirely understand either himself or the situation he's in. In the second act, Kevin takes a more active role over his life while at the same time being talked about by the people around him in ways that may or may not accurately describe him. It didn't seem to me, though, that Stahl-David knew how to make the transition from a fairly passive character to a more active one, and so he sometimes resorted to tics and histrionics, but mostly just came across as flat. This was a real surprise, because I'd liked his work a lot in the first act.
The second act was a disappointment, and I'll be curious to read the play when it's published to see how much of that disappointment was caused by the production and how much was inherent in the script. The first act was a magnificent set-up, full of interesting and enigmatic material, sometimes funny, sometimes touching, sometimes beguiling. The second act had some interesting material, but except for Lipinski, the actors no longer seemed to know quite what they were doing on stage other than delivering their lines. Kevin's character has no luck getting work as an actor after the movie is released, despite its success, and so he leaves Hollywood and goes back to college. People talk about him as having been too honest and truthful and sensitive as an actor for the big time, but it's hard to tell whether we should believe this -- I found it more interesting to think that there was something else, something he was probably unconscious of, that had sabotaged his career.
The second act contained the single most powerful stage image of the play for me: Kevin has become obsessed with Harbor and keeps watching the movie, looking for clues and traces to the life he didn't have. Jen meanwhile has had enough of him and wants to move on with her life. The image that I found so powerful was of Kevin kneeling on a couch, staring at the film as it played on a TV offstage, mesmerized by it, while Jen stares at him. (Unfortunately, that was just the beginning of the scene, and it continued with needless and obvious dialogue. It would have been more powerful had Jen just looked at him, then picked up her stuff and left without a word. Instead, it briefly felt like we'd been dropped into an episode of Days of Our Lives.)
Nick becomes the most interesting character in the play because, against all odds, he achieves the success Kevin had hoped for himself. (So, in fact, does Jen, it seems.) Much about Nick's character remains implied or mysterious, and this is part of what moves so much of the play's gravity to him -- he contains multitudes. This is great for an actor playing Nick, but it's problematic for the play as a whole, because the second act doesn't really have much emotional effect if we don't care about Kevin primarily. That's why I wonder whether it was the performance or the script -- is the problem that Stahl-David just didn't have the ability to make Kevin more than bland, or that, as written, Kevin is bland? If Lipinski had been playing Kevin, would the second act have had the poignancy it seemed to strive for?
Christopher Shinn does not write actor-proof plays. His best works are tone poems disguised as traditional realism. I don't think it's an insult to say he's not as great a writer as Chekhov (who is?), but if you've ever seen both a bad production of a Chekhov play and a great production of a Chekhov play, you know a bad production -- even a mediocre production -- of an exquisitely balanced and sensitively nuanced script can lead to tedium and incoherence, while that same script, in a great production, is sublime. Picked was not often tedious -- a fascinating tension filled the Nick and Kevin scenes in particular, and John's over-the-top character enlivened his scenes -- but I did find the second act sometimes incoherent, and, in its last moments, a bit flat. I also thought it offered the potential of sublime moments, and achieved that potential a few times.
I've ended up being more negative toward the play than I intended here, mostly because the stuff that seems to me interesting to analyze is what didn't work for me. The majority of the play really did work for me -- the performances of Lipinski, Blum, and Hanover, as well as Stahl-David's performance in the first act; much of the writing, which is, for Shinn, typically capable of suggesting depths beneath the ordinariness of our everyday language; the clever and efficient set design, which used moveable segments of couch to create a wide variety of furniture and objects; and, especially, the sensitive presentation of a really powerful question: What do we do when we don't become the people we thought we would become?
I think it's significant, too, that Shinn decided to write this story as a drama and not a comedy. It's easy to create a caricature of an actor who doesn't find expected success. Much comedy has been made from just such a person, or from talentless actors who think they are vastly more accomplished than they are. Those are easy targets. Kevin is not a target, and that may be one of the reasons many critics didn't know what to do with this play. I wasn't able to sustain real interest in him through the second half, but he's remained in my mind, which may, in fact, be more important than having felt while I sat in the Vineyard Theatre that all of my attention was drawn to him. Maybe his ordinariness, his ostensible flatness, is the whole point -- maybe it's not that he was just too honest or truthful an actor for Hollywood, but that he was too much of a regular human being. Perhaps at the end, instead of walking back to a big Hollywood party, he should have stepped off the stage and joined us in the seats.