The Epic Theater prides itself on developing and launching high-minded dramas that address weighty social issues. By that scorecard, Epic founder Zak Berkman doesn’t let the side down with “Beauty on the Vine,” a mystery-fable about a glam radio personality (played by the glam Olivia Wilde) who unwittingly causes her own murder by inspiring young girls to surgically make themselves over to look like her. But while scribe raises provocative ideas about image and identity, celebrity worship and the politics of gender and race, he fails to commit to a dominant theme or to structure scenes accordingly. In trade parlance, he bit off more than he could chew.
As fleshed out by helmer David Schweitzer’s pro team of thesps, the players in this ambitious morality tale almost get away with the conceit that they are real characters talking some kind of sense about how they got into the assorted predicaments of their lives.
Wilde (“The Black Donnellys”) possesses exactly the right kind of eerie beauty that would make a media star of Lauren Chitterick, a conservative talk-show host with the glaring self-regard of a junior league Ann Coulter. By delivering her inflammatory right-wing opinions in a seductive purr more commonly associated with commercial phone sex, Lauren has not only built up a rabid fan base but also attracted a stalker.
It looks like curtains for Lauren when her stalker catches up with her and pumps seven bullets into her beautiful blank face. At which point Berkman smartly switches to flashback mode, resurrecting his heroine so we can get the full blast of her charismatic personality — along with a sense of how the clamorous public adoration was fueled by the neediness of her self-loathing admirers.
Not even Lauren’s nearest and dearest are exempt from the idol-worship. Subtle actor that he is, David Strathairn (stepping into the role for the final stretch of the Off Broadway run) conveys both a father’s anxious concern for his brilliant daughter and a funny feeling that there was something unhealthy about this familial relationship.
No less skilled at playing ambiguity, Howard W. Overshown deftly balances husband Sweet’s love for his dazzling star of a wife with his own self-doubting identity problems as a mixed-race American man.
Equally strong, if less ambivalent attitudes toward Lauren are handled by two charisma-resistant characters played by Helen Coxe and Barbara Garrick. But Berkman’s real coup de theatre is restoring Lauren to life by showing her stranglehold on two young women (also played by Wilde) who underwent extensive cosmetic surgery (a la some macabre TV reality show) to transform themselves into her image.
Alas, the play fails to capitalize on the dramatic (or even melodramatic) potential of this bizarre situation, choosing to climb on its soapbox to deliver some old-fashioned polemical speeches about the impact of image-worship on impressionable girls and infatuated men alike.
In all this ranting, it seems odd that no one thinks to challenge Lauren herself, who somehow manages to express some highly questionable theories about life, love and politics without raising a single intelligent protest. Aside from those seven bullets to the face, of course.