Encore Michigan

Purple Rose tackles marital truths in ‘Vino Veritas’

Review April 02, 2017 Jenn McKee

CHELSEA, Mich.–You’re different from the man I married,” a character says in the Purple Rose Theatre’s revival of David MacGregor’s Vino Veritas – and that’s before two suburban couples have thrown back glasses of an exotic Peruvian wine that acts as a truth serum.

Yet, the line reveals the dirty little secret of marriage, doesn’t it? People don’t stop changing just because you’ve reached adulthood, and rings are exchanged, and promises are made. Indeed, one of the primary challenges of a maturing marriage – particularly when parenting is added into the mix – is whether your own still-twisting life path, and that of your partner’s, intersect often enough that you still feel you’re on the same map.

VINO-VERITAS-02--PURPLE-ROSEIn Vino, photography studio owners Lauren (Kate Thomsen) and Phil (David Bendena), who’d previously lived a more daring, globetrotting lifestyle, are meeting up with their best friends – neighbors Ridley (Alex Leydenfrost), a doctor, and Claire (Aphrodite Nikolovski), a housewife –before heading to a Halloween party. This pre-party turns into something far more riveting, though, when Lauren brings out a special wine from the couple’s recent trip, and each of the four adults must decide how much truth they can handle, both from themselves and each other.

MacGregor achieves something quite impressive with Vino; namely, it’s a pretty whip-smart, well-paced comedy with substance. Filled with sharp dialogue and laughs, the script has scaffolding made from the questions we all face in mid-life.

Even so, there are a few minor missteps. One or two passages sound more like expository speeches, or attempts at stand-up comedy, than part of an organic conversation; and while director Rhiannon Ragland more than delivers on the script’s witty sense of humor, two key moments – Lauren’s dramatic re-telling of how she obtained the potion, and Claire’s soul-bearing breakdown (which is partly played for laughs, in a disturbing way) – feel self-conscious and threaten to derail the production’s tone.

Yet, Vino Veritas is, overall, a really good vintage with legs. Leydenfrost effectively embodies the pretentious, buttoned-up, in-denial “straight man” of the group – the kind of guy who wears his lab coat to a costume party. Nikolovski, playing his secretly frustrated wife, delivers on a role that is far meatier than it initially appears. (Plus, she earned opening night’s biggest laugh by drily responding, “It wasn’t a good day,” when Claire is called out for a parenting choice.) Thomsen is quietly fierce and funny as a woman who doesn’t quite understand how she came to be in the life she’s living. And Bendena – nearly unrecognizable from his previous role as a grieving, obsessed son in “Smart Love” at the Rose – is the show’s beating heart. Though he initially comes off as merely a complacent, trivia-and golf-loving wiseacre husband and father, he later shares sobering, wise insights about his initial pursuit of Lauren, and their now-flagging marriage, that irreparably pierce his fragile facade.

Unfortunately, the staging of this significant reveal feels clunky. Lauren re-enters but stops short, as if to eavesdrop, despite being in Ridley’s and Claire’s line of vision. In this way, logistic questions – like, if the wine makes you tell the truth, wouldn’t Lauren’s presence not affect Phil’s words? – threatened to distract attention from one of the play’s defining moments.

But the play sticks the landing, with as satisfying an ending as you could hope for. And as is always the case at the Rose, the behind-the-scenes design work is outstanding. Sarah Pearline furnishes Lauren and Phil’s brick home tastefully, with a subtly exotic, bohemian edge; Katherine Nelson’s costumes hit the right notes; and Dana L. White’s lighting design, and Tom Whalen’s sound, balance the play’s hard, unvarnished truths with a softer touch.

I should note that I saw (and reviewed) the Rose’s original production of “Vino” almost ten years ago. I was pregnant with my first daughter, unprepared for the seismic change that lay ahead of me, and not yet in the same “moment” as these characters.

So, revisiting Vino now, while in the thick of middle age, provided a more visceral, philosophical gut-check for me. Whereas I’d previously thought, while watching the world premiere production in 2008, that I’d definitely dive into a truth-telling exercise, I’m far less sure that I would now. For as we age and continue to change, while striving to stay connected to those closest to us, it gets harder to remember what was once true, and which lies may have originally been born out of love.

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Week of 2/18/2019

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