StageSceneLA: “Vino Veritas has both freshness and edge”

There’s nothing like an exotic Peruvian wine to reveal long-hidden secrets when a couple of 30something married couples imbibe said intoxicant in full Halloween regalia at Theatre 40 in Vino Veritas, David MacGregor’s tantalizing look at two marriages for whom truth may be precisely what the doctor ordered, or the worst medicine of all.

Fifteen years as husband and wife have left Lauren and Phil (Christine Joëlle and Shawn Savage) in a marital rut, mere shadows of the pair of roving photographers who once swam with hammerhead sharks off the Great Barrier Reef.

True, Phil is still a photographer by profession, but owning a portrait studio is no substitute for climbing Nepal’s Mt. Pumori or nearly dying in a Hawaiian lava field rather than losing that “that perfect shot,” or at least not as far as Lauren is concerned.

Even a recent ten-day jaunt down to Peru, their first trip away from home (and their two rambunctious young sons) in three years, did little to spice up their lackluster lives, though Lauren did end up sneaking off one night for a moonlit boat ride, attending a midnight Incan wedding celebration and bringing back with her a bottle of some very special ceremonial wine.

Made from blue dart tree frog skins boiled in camucamu fruit juice, it is this vino that will bring out the veritas should next-door-neighbor best friends Ridley and Claire (Daniel Kaemon and Kirsten Kollander) join them in a toast before heading off to the annual costume party where Claire plans once again to win first prize, this year in Queen Elizabeth II gown she’s spent the past five months making.

Guess who never makes it to the Halloween party? Guess whose dirty laundry gets aired? Guess which marriage could use a jolt of the truth, and which couple would be better off without?

Playwright MacGregor not only keeps audiences guessing, some of the evening’s revelations (sexual shenanigans in particular) could put any marriage at risk, though an Act One cliffhanger turns out to be nothing more than a gimmick to get audiences back post intermission.

Lauren and Phil’s banter, in particular, has the ring of a couple who’ve lived and loved, fought and made up, and harbored resentments that just might benefit from airing, and not the least because, under Michael Karm’s incisive direction, the roles are played by real-life partners (and frequent Theatre 40 costars) Joëlle and Savage.

The latter does his accustomed terrific work as a man who’s seemingly lost the love of adventure that once made him Claire’s perfect match, and just wait till a dynamic Savage reveals the lengths Phil will go to to defend his bullied son.

As for Joëlle, the T40 favorite is once again extraordinary (as she was in two very different roles in Remembrance and Perfect Timing), comedically gifted, utterly in-the-moment, lovely to look at, and in a scene that plumbs her dramatic depths, altogether devastating.

Judgmental Alpha-male Ridley and the (not just sexually) frustrated Claire are harder to take to, but the always splendid Kaemon and Kollender go a long way towards making them, if not necessarily likable, at the very least characters we recognize and understand.

Vino Veritas looks absolutely fabulous thanks to scenic designer Jeff G. Rack’s expansive suburban living room, one that prop master Ernest McDaniel has filled with enough Halloween paraphernalia to do any ghost-and-goblin-loving family proud, with special snaps to lighting designer Brandon Baruch and sound designer Joesph “Sloe” Slawinski for upping the spook factor throughout.

To Michèle Young’s expert costume design skills have been added a couple of Angela Nicholas-designed Halloween gowns that would do any adult trick-or-treater proud, and all of the above benefit from Judi Lewin’s just-right makeup, hair, and wig designs.

Vino Veritas is produced by David Hunt Stafford. Don Solosan is stage manager and Richard Carner is assistant stage manager.

As the recent Sequence and Late Company made perfectly clear, the venerable Theatre 40 is best when taking chances on the fresh and edgy. Vino Veritas has both freshness and edge, and is well worth checking out on this its closing weekend.