Olivia Wilde and Howard W. Overshown
in Beauty on the Vine
(© Tao Ruspoli)
Olivia Wilde and Howard W. Overshown
in Beauty on the Vine
(© Tao Ruspoli)
I'm assuming Zak Berkman doesn't have a terminal disease. But his new play Beauty on the Vine sounds like the work of someone who's been told he has only a month to live and has therefore been forced to throw every idea, character, and plot device he's ever had in his head into one play.

Two hours just simply isn't enough time to cover the evils of plastic surgery, the downside of national fame, the question of mixed-race identity, and the ideological problems of both the Republican and Democratic parties. Further, given that Berkman is actually the founder of the Epic Theater Company, which is presenting the play at the Clurman, you really would expect that he'd get another chance at the stage.

And he should. Yes, the play is ridiculously overstuffed and awkwardly structured -- complete with flashbacks, first-person narration, and a rather mysterious mother and daughter (Barbara Garrick and Jessica Richardson) whose true identities are withheld for far too long. But Berkman is capable of sharp thinking, deep characterization, and beautiful writing -- even if too much of it gets lost in the muddle, despite fine direction by David Schweizer and the acting of an accomplished cast led by the sensational Olivia Wilde.

The television and film beauty plays Lauren Chitterick (Olivia Wilde), a gorgeous 25-year-old Southern gal who has grown into one of the nation's most popular radio talk show hosts, enchanting everyone from 12-year-old girls to 60-year-old men with her right-wing Republican philosophy. Lauren is, of course, more than meets than eye. We know that from the get-go, as she quickly picks up -- and later marries -- Sweet (Howard W. Overshown), a mixed-race music journalist with some serious identity issues of his own. Only at the play's end, however, do we get the full measure of who Lauren really was.

For a while, we're also led to believe that it's her marriage to Sweet that has led to Lauren's brutal murder. In the aftermath of the crime, Sweet is contacted by a former high school classmate of Lauren's who had plastic surgery at 18 to look exactly like her. And she's not the only one; another classmate did the same thing. Neither woman (both played by Wilde) has turned out to be a particularly happy camper, despite her new-and-supposedly-improved appearance.

It would be a heady assignment for any young actress to tackle all three of these roles, not to mention make them all completely distinct and utterly human. Yet, the usually-brunette Wilde-- known to many for her work on the TV series The O.C. and The Black Donnellys -- has been transformed into a far-from-dumb blonde, reminiscent in many ways of the young Jessica Lange. She is utterly transfixing.

Fortunately, Lauren or one of her doppelgangers are on stage much of the time, since the play sags even further when the focus is on the other characters, despite good performances from Overshown, Garrick, and Richardson, and a properly feisty one from Helen Coxe as Sweet's uber-liberal best friend, Ellie.

If there's one other character who intermittently fascinates -- despite some unbelievability in his actions -- it's Daniel, Lauren's overprotective and slightly sinister father, played with unusual effectiveness by Victor Slezak.

Berkman has also fallen into the same trap of many up-and-coming playwrights in creating a work that is essentially cinematic, requiring way too many scene changes, ranging from the talk-show studio to Lauren's living room to a prison. While these constant shifts of location can be accomplished with inventiveness and a healthy budget -- as evidenced earlier this season by such shows as The Scene and All That I Will Ever Be -- it defeats smaller companies like Epic. Indeed, Narelle Sissons' manually-shifting series of reflecting panels is almost as unwieldy as the play itself.