Michael Stahl-David and Liz Stauber in Picked
(© Carol Rosegg)
Michael Stahl-David and Liz Stauber in Picked
(© Carol Rosegg)
The plays of Christopher Shinn, at their best, are diamond-sharp, psychoanalytic portraits of people trying to connect with each other and with the world they inhabit, from the grieving souls in Dying City to the dazed and confused youth in Where Do We Live. In Shinn's new work, Picked, which is premiering at the Vineyard Theatre under the direction of Michael Wilson, the characters' journeys are murkier than usual for this playwright -- and ultimately more depressing than illuminating.

Kevin, a vulnerable young actor (an appealing and sensitive Michael Stahl-David) gets cast in a Hollywood blockbuster, and finds his life--and his relationships with others--thrown out of joint. Kevin is drawn into the movie project by John, an enormously successful director (Mark Blum), who is somewhat narcissistic, yet passionate about making intelligent films. His idea is to make a sci-fi thriller that will be scripted using the results of brain scans that measure Kevin's mental reactions to certain personal questions in order to create an authentic character with which audiences will empathize and relate.

The irony is that there is so little apparent empathy and genuine connection between these two men that their first meeting becomes almost unbearably tense. In addition, the relationship between Kevin and his longtime girlfriend, Jen (Liz Stauber), a struggling actress, also seems oddly casual and detached.

While much of this is intentional on the playwright's part, it's difficult to care about these characters when deep problems between them arise, especially as Jen -- in both the writing and Stauber's portrayal -- comes across as hard and unlikeable throughout the play.

Faring better is Tom Lipinski as Nick, a rival actor who also suffers through John's roughshod artistic methods. Lipinski infuses his scenes with just the right balance of empathy. (The cast is rounded out by former New York City first lady Donna Hanover, who gives a reliable performance in a couple of small supporting roles.)

Shinn presents a number of unnecessary, obstacles to our concentration -- most notably, the play's scientific jargon, which is quite heavy, especially in that first scene. In addition, the film treatments that are described in the play--one about "experimental neuroenhancement procedures," another about a father reconnecting with his son through an imaginary friend--sound almost laughably noncommercial.

The playwright does present John (and the audience) with an amusing moment in which he claims that, for his latest feature, he's finally "figured out the visual effect for empathy." In many of Shinn's past works, he had that figured out as well.