"Vivisections From the Blown Mind" is a great title. But the play, which is receiving its premiere at Arena Stage's Old Vat Room, comes closer to an evisceration than a vivisection.
An examination of the unraveling of a superstar black rapper named Castro, it never fully exposes his inner workings. Instead, playwright Alonzo D. Lamont Jr., a faculty member at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, has cut away too much crucial detail. What remains tends to be overstated.
The play's theme -- the price of success -- is hardly new. But it's a valid theme, and one to which Mr. Lamont has added a chapter. He blames Castro's ruin not merely on greed, but on his refusal to set a positive example and give something back to his people.
This is where the overstatement enters in. Most of the blame is cast by a magazine reporter who shows up in the second act, purportedly to interview Castro. Instead, the reporter rails against Castro's irresponsibility. How much more effective it would be if Castro realized this on his own -- or if his acknowledgment of it contributed to his undoing. Instead, his downfall is triggered by romantic jealousy, a turn of events that is too pat and melodramatic.
Nor are these the only problems with the character. In the first act, which begins at a press conference and proceeds to Castro's sumptuous home, we learn that the rapper is really a former college philosophy major. His foul-mouthed, tough-guy image was forged for commercial purposes by a slick agent.
The trouble is, Castro never reveals more than a hint of the former college student. The playwright may be suggesting Castro has bought into his own image so completely that he has lost himself. But we need to see more of what was lost.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the best performance is that of M. E. Hart as Castro's best friend. Though merely a supporting character, it's also the most believable. In contrast, Lee Simon Jr. has an uphill battle as Castro, and it's exacerbated by the fact that he's a less than adept rapper.
As the star-making agent, Katrina Van Duyn struggles with a shallow role. And Vincent Brown gets off to an impressive start as the reporter, but loses credibility when he jumps on the soapbox.
Like its rap-star protagonist, "Vivisections" has potential, but goes overboard. The play has a strong thematic foundation, and Clinton Turner Davis' direction accentuates the inherent theatricality of rap. But just as Castro is ruled by the almighty dollar, so "Vivisections" is ruled by an almighty message; both are weakened in the process.
From the Blown Mind' When: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Through May 26.
Where: Arena Stage, Sixth Street and Maine Avenue Southwest, Washington.
Call: (202) 488-3300.