The Hollywood Machine

The insecurity of actors, the megalomania of movie directors, and the toll of fame and fortune on artistic integrity are all at the forefront of Christopher Shinn’s newest drama, Picked, now playing at The Vineyard Theatre. There is much to admire in tackling such weighty issues, but ultimately the author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist Dying City and Obie award-winning Where Do We Live fails to address them with the proper gravitas or insight. Picked starts off strong, then quickly loses speed.

Struggling young actor Kevin (Michael Stahl-David) is “picked” by über-successful director John (Mark Blum) as the lead for his newest sci-fi extravaganza. John wants to subject Kevin to a series of fMRIs — or neuroimaging — to track his responses to various questions, resulting in measurable activity in the brain’s areas that coincide with anxiety, anger, sadness, and other emotions.

Using this data, the director hopes to create a script that taps into Kevin’s real feelings, resulting in a more authentic experience for moviegoers. Call it “emotion capture” as opposed to the regularly-used motion capture technique employed in many of today’s effects-laden blockbusters and animated feature films.

This opening-scene salvo launches Picked onto what seems to be an intriguing platform for dramatic exploration. Kevin’s own emotions will help the gonzo director create a part that is literally made for him. And John has an even more intriguing idea up his sleeve as well: Kevin will play both the hero and the villain.

But this part of a lifetime comes with caveats — no other work at all for a specified period of time, a gag order on what the film is about until it has been released, and other restrictive stipulations. With the weight of superstardom hanging over him, Kevin becomes increasingly unhinged and disillusioned with the Hollywood machine.

Like in his other plays, Shinn explores the double nature of man in Picked. This dichotomy is expressed in subtle and not-so-subtle ways: the dual hero and villain parts that Kevin are originally assigned (not so subtle); and the similarly eager young actor Nick (Tom Lipinski) who takes over the evil half of the role (more subtle) at the director’s insistence.

But the seriousness of Kevin as an actor’s actor, one who wants to present truth and honesty in his craft, becomes the downfall of this well-meaning production. Kevin’s earnestness does not translate well to the stage, ending up flat and vacuous, which may or may not be a reflection of the director’s need for a blank-slate cipher on which he can apply his vision. Only when the shallow and callow appear onstage alongside this modern-day brooder does Picked pick up steam.

Veteran character actor Blum (Twelve Angry Men, The Graduate) gleefully attacks his part as the lecherous filmmaker, clearly patterned on Avatar and Titanic “King of the World” James Cameron. In the first act, he comes off as a self-centered windbag who continually cuts off the hopeful young actor mid-sentence to resume his own verbal diarrhea. Eventually he emerges as a bit of a father figure to the increasingly lost Kevin.

As the up-and-coming Nick, Lipinski (from the upcoming Certainty) exudes much more stage presence and charisma than does the dour lead. Even Donna Hanover (the ex-Mrs. Rudy Giuliani) seems to be having fun as both a bewildering casting director and a perky on-air television hostess. But Stahl-David, who starred in J.J. Abrams’ monster movie Cloverfield a few years back, lacks the requisite intensity for the existential crisis of Kevin. He does, however, fare better with the self-questioning and ambiguity in the character.

At two hours, Picked feels much longer than it should. What should be fascinating turns out to be painfully dull, as directed by Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle award-winner Michael Wilson (Horton Foote’s The Orphans’ Home Cycle as well as the recent Roundabout production of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore).

Picked trudges along towards its necessarily ambivalent ending, both hopeful and despairing like what has preceded it. Kevin, who had previously turned his back on acting after his long-festering disappointment, is sucked back into the Hollywood machine by an offer he can’t refuse. He has once again been “picked.”

Picked can best be described as a worthy failure, full of interesting ideas not so interestingly fulfilled. Ultimately the play suffers from the same dilemma as its protagonist — weighted down by its own ambitions.

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