Who's Afraid of Vino Veritas?
Virginia Woolf with drugs
by Sally Mitani
The premise makes it sound more gimmicky than it is. Two staid suburban couples, on a dare, drink some sort of hallucinogenic truth-inducing "wine" made from Peruvian tree frogs. Vino Veritas, which continues its world premiere run at the Purple Rose through Saturday, March 8, and was written by David MacGregor (also author of The Late Great Henry Boyle), begins on this clunky note, and the premise is harder to swallow than the wine. The pretty glowing blue liquid looks more like the happy hour special at the local martini bar than frog slurry cooked up by a Carlos Castañeda wannabe, and it seems to go down pretty easily. But putting a bottle of tequila on the table is a simpler, more time-honored setup.
The other unnecessarily flamboyant touch is that the four characters drinking the "wine" are wearing Halloween costumes (because it's Halloween), which serve as sandwich boards announcing the carefully constructed outer shells that the strange drink dissolves. The costuming is only mildly and momentarily distracting, but it's as if the playwright doesn't trust his own material. The press photos, featuring a cowboy wrestling with Queen Elizabeth, suggest more Felliniesque merriment than actually occurs.
Once you get past that, Vino Veritas is a truly well-constructed and believable play about marriage and middle age, and about the things that people, as a matter of survival, avoid talking about: a kind of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on drugs. Compared to Albee's George and Martha, MacGregor's first couple are more obviously on the verge of divorce. You know them. Maybe you are them: the bitter, angry, but deliciously fraught Lauren (Suzi Regan) and the happy numbskull Phil (Phil Powers). He's looking forward to an evening of beer and pizza puffs with the neighbors, and she tensely delivers the news that it will be quinoa with camarones and clam broth. She says it with such shrill desperation that there's a kind of group stomach clench out in the audience.
The neighbors are a more complacent couple, a doctor and his cheerful, nurturing wife, but as the evening unfolds, their complacency turns out to be the only thing they share. The four psyches unfurl in surprising ways, and, more surprising, playwright MacGregor seems to know what to do with these forces once they're unleashed. It is far more satisfying than the tree frog wine and odd costumes would suggest.
[Review published March 2008]