What if you got your dreamed-of big career break, but it didn't seem to change your life for the better?
How an earnest young actor deals with that huge disappointment is the premise behind Christopher Shinn's thoughtful and humorous new play, "Picked," which opened Wednesday night at off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre. The well-cast and nicely acted production features Kevin, an unknown actor appealingly performed by Michael Stahl-David, who is selected to participate in a two-year movie project conceived and written by a driven, egotistical but successful director.
Mark Blum plays the insensitive director, John, with wicked insight into just how unconsciously horrible his character actually is. Blum's off-hand delivery of John's self-serving, ignorant or smarmy remarks gets lots of laughs. Rarely letting actors' genuine emotions interfere with his artistic "vision," John says things like, "Finally figured out the visual effect for empathy — that took a while."
Kevin, who believes an actor's job is to "offer the truth," lets John literally pick his brain by undergoing neuro-imaging to provide real and compelling material for a science-fiction film about a robot and a spaceship captain.
Liz Stauber plays Kevin's patient and understanding actress girlfriend, Jen, while Tom Lipinski ably portrays Nick, a fellow actor whose career takes off dramatically after he works with John and Kevin. Donna Hanover is delightful in two small roles, as an impossibly nice casting agent and a television interviewer.
In Shinn's typically spare dialogue, these characters frequently let sentences trail off rather than complete their thoughts; Kevin and Jen in particular often communicate by sentence fragments.
In a rapid series of mostly short scenes imaginative staged by director Michael Wilson, Kevin's life goes downhill in the increasingly surreal aftermath of the movie project. It's not really clear why he enters a weird career twilight zone, morosely telling Jen, "Now I can't even get the kind of work I don't want to do." The more he tries to understand it, the more depressed he becomes.
In Shinn's other plays, like the Pulitzer Prize-nominated "Dying City," he brilliantly illuminated big emotions like grief and loss with often-elliptical dialogue and onstage silences. Using those same techniques in "Picked," he makes sly points about the ironies inherent in the profession of acting and the difficulties of creating a "true" experience in the totally artificial medium of film.
"Picked" is scheduled to perform through May 15.