Sunday, November 3, 2019

You are what you drink: 'Vino Veritas' probes marriage's deep secrets

A comforting cliche about successful marriage is that it's not two people looking into each other's eyes, but two people looking in the same direction.

David MacGregor's "Vino Veritas," Phoenix Theatre's current production, reveals that Lauren and Phil started out with the deep mutual gaze common to many couples falling in love. But what emerges in this sometimes disturbing two-act comedy is that the essential looking in the same direction can gradually ossify into tunnel vision. Then neither may notice that the outlook has become wall-eyed or cross-eyed. They look off elsewhere,
Lauren makes pitch for quaffing an exotic wine to husband and guests on Halloween.
and the binocular focus turns dangerously blurry.

The importance of fully functioning peripheral vision in matters of the heart is underlined as this comfortably situated middle-class couple welcomes a neighboring couple into their home for an intimate prelude to a large, traditional Halloween party. Neighbors Ridley and Claire, with more profound fissures in their relationship, have dimmer prospects for healing as the evening ends with the party skipped.

What exposes the ruptures in both marriages is a mysterious blue wine Lauren has brought back from South American travels. By local legend, its consumption provokes truth-telling. "In vino veritas," the ancient Romans said in reference to a significant effect of inebriation. This blue wine makes the romp of truth inevitable.

Before the shared wine does its thing, the complicated swerve that Lauren and Phil's life together has taken is suggested as you walk into the Basile Theatre and take in Zac Hunter's expansive set, a well-appointed living room with an unsettling profusion of messy kid traces. Child-rearing is just one aspect of the alienation the couple feels: Lauren, played with brassy exasperation by Carrie Schlatter, is upset by a disorderliness that Phil, suffused with overeager blitheness by Wolf J. Sherrill, shrugs off.

But the marital friction that's plain in the first scene is more than carping without context. Lauren has an unfulfilled adventurousness that the superficial placidness of family life, supported by a photography business focused on weddings and child portraits, has suppressed. Phil is the picture of nonchalant adjustment; we eventually find out why he's easily moved beyond his youthful derring-do with cameras in exotic climes.

At first, however, we get two clever, articulate people sparring in a manner that has become habitual. It's the timeworn stuff of barbed household comedy: Is this an update of "The Honeymooners" or "I Love Lucy"? For a while, I worried that director Bill Simmons allowed his actors to set too brisk a pace, foregrounding the repartee excessively. Later, in retrospect, it became clear that the fast tempo helps to highlight the need of both husband and wife to conceal loads of appalling emotional weight. We eventually learn why Lauren and Phil are both looking in crucially different directions. The poet W.H. Auden says somewhere: "Wit is a combination of imagination, moral courage, and unhappiness." All three qualities emerge at various rates from the crucible of Lauren and Phil's  desperate wittiness.

The wine-altered Claire, costumed as the Virgin Queen, tees off on the gathering.
The performances of Schlatter and Sherrill evolve accordingly. In the second act, as revelation piles on revelation, fueled by exotic wine,  individual needs come to light in all their rawness. At the same time, the host couple's mutual devotion shows unmistakable signs of endurance.

What do Ridley and Claire have to do with this? They are not just a more explosive example of marital discord, extrapolated to almost farcical effect. They are also cheek-by-jowl rivals as parents and citizens, and thus test cases for the adequacy of well-off suburban life. And the guard rails are down.

As Ridley, Michael Hosp displays  a risible type of arrogance that blends the masterful physician and the pretentious oenophile. He is a foil for Claire's obsessive concern with her Halloween costuming skills, the mask she annually puts on to help redirect unmet emotional needs and once again snag the top party prize. The pathos and fun that Sarah Hund put into her portrayal — all the while costumed as Queen Elizabeth I (except for a manic disrobing episode) — were endearing.

There is hardly a subject that fails to come up as the couples open the floodgates. They scrap about their children, their parents and in-laws, and all manner of social and religious values. Sexual eccentricity (as seen from the norms of respectability) blasts into the foreground. Hypocrisy follows like a yapping dog at heel. As the second act unfolds, the sadness of dysfunction and loss rubs shoulders with hilarity.

The set-up of the powerful wine is fortunately signaled in the first act by bursts of lighting and sound effects (designed by Michael Moffatt and Tom Horan). Thus we are constantly reminded of the unrealistic trigger of action and dialogue that are grounded in realism. Despite the fancifully demonic wine, there is something that, amid the laughter, "Vino Veritas" may have to tell all manner of long-running domestic partnerships. Most of us just have to hope we don't need to get blotto in order to confront the truth about ourselves and our partners and, with luck, build new stability upon it.

[Photos by Michael Drury]

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