Young movie-star-handsome Kevin is picked from obscurity by Hollywood A-list director John to headline his latest sci-fi epic because the actor "had this quality, just—honest, direct." Even better, John plans to base the film on interviews with Kevin about his life that are monitored by brain scans, which will tell John what emotions Kevin is feeling when speaking—his subtext, in effect. John will then disguise it all in a futuristic epic with no villain, about a battle between a human and a robot over the welfare of the crew on a mission to colonize a new planet. Kevin is to play both parts. Well, that is until filming begins, and John decides that there's not enough difference showing on screen between the two characters. Enter Nick, who lost the dual role to Kevin, to play the robot. Also around is Kevin's longtime girlfriend Jen, an actor-waiter who's having serious difficulty getting cast. Landing the role does indeed transform Kevin's life, but not in the positive ways he expects, although he is reportedly brilliant in it. It seems he's just too sensitive, too naked for his own good. No one will hire him after the film comes out, even though it's a hit, and he ends up out of the business and back at college trying to decide what to do with his life while the shallower Nick and Jen go on to successful careers.
Shinn certainly has an ear for actor-speak, but it doesn't coalesce into interesting characters. Ultimately, all that navel-gazing, combined with Act 1's above-mentioned desert of dramatic conflict, makes for pretty soporific drama. (Shinn even references this coyly in Act 2, when the creative but crass John asks Kevin about the completed film, "It didn't seem boring—like there wasn't enough tension?") Act 2, which charts Kevin's career decline and breakup with Jen, at least features some drama. But when the never-angry Kevin ("I always worry it'll just—overwhelm," he tells John) finally explodes at the unfairness of it all, and set designer Rachel Hauck's soulless, perforated metal panels slide off to expose an open and glowing blue background, well, my eyes rolled.
The usually reliable Michael Wilson's studied direction only indulges the problems. The cast, good actors all, are hamstrung by Shinn and Wilson's apparent insistence on stasis. Michael Stahl-David can't energize the blank Kevin, Liz Stauber's Jen is as standard-issue as the character, and Tom Lipinski is a boyishly bland Nick. Donna Hanover plays two strictly functional characters—a TV interviewer and a casting director—briskly. Mark Blum at least has John's vulgarity to work with and takes advantage of it whenever he can, but even Blum can't hold interest during the endless opening scene, in which John interviews a wary and tight-lipped Kevin and then goes on to blather endlessly about his proposed film.
Of course, it's almost impossible not to suspect that Shinn sees himself in Kevin, a fearless artist too uncompromising for show business. That one's as old as the hills, and a play isn't going to change it. Here's hoping that Shinn has now gotten his de rigueur Hollywood play out of his system and returns to more-fertile subject matter.
Presented by and at Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St., NYC. April 20–May 22. Tue., 7 p.m.; Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 3 p.m. (212) 353-0303 or www.vineyardtheatre.org. Casting by Henry Russell Bergstein.