One for oenophiles

Live Bait Theater Artistic Director Sharon Evans, a former sommelier and wine buyer, puts her past experience to delicious use in her potable new play, “Blind Tasting,” a toast to lovers of wine, Italy and, especially, Italian wines.

The recipient of an unexpected inheritance, Tom, an expert, if pedantic, Chicago sommelier, is retiring, leaving his precious wine list in the hands of his young protege, Blanche, a budding wine geek who until recently tended the bar. While Tom struggles amid a fermenting divorce from his wife, Miranda, a professor of Italian literature, Blanche is in the earliest stages of romance with Ralph, a sleep-deprived hospital resident.

Flashbacks send us back to Tom and Miranda’s Italian honeymoon, where the epiphany of chianti launched Tom on what was to become his life’s work, but also where the vine of discontent entwining the couple’s marriage was sown when Miranda met the robust Phillipo, scion of a noble winemaking family. There, too, Tom encountered the elegant Francesca, a novice nun later to become a winemaker herself, whose advice saved the fledgling marriage.

Mark Richard, perhaps best known for his delightful depictions of Bertie Wooster for City Lit Theater, does a wonderful job here as the somewhat stiff and steely “Wine God” Tom, sensual when it comes to wine, but otherwise austere. Marco Verna and Jenni Fontana as Phillipo and Francesca, play their Italian parts with sublime authenticity — he bold and a bit fleshy; she, refined yet honest. Jennifer Barclay gives spritzy Blanche appropriate giddiness but perhaps too much of a smirk. Kelly Lynn Hogan, as Miranda, and Ian Novak as Ralph, have the least scope, but work well with what the script gives them.

Despite a few defects, this play’s a treat for those who can tell their barolo from their barbaresco and know when to swirl and when to spit. Although they’ll find a few minor actors’ gaffes to pick on (serious wine tasters are really much sillier-looking when they’re sampling than these players allow themselves to be), “Blind Tasting” will appeal most to those who know and love wine and wine people.

Non-oenophiles, unable to appreciate Evans’ deft send-up of the wine world, may find the play less to their taste. The story line lacks depth and complexity, but it’s not quite funny enough for light comedy. The humor is mainly in the wine jokes.

Even for connoisseurs, the finish is weak. Will the distraught Tom and Miranda find reconciliation, or solace, at the hands of Francesca and Phillipo? Will Blanche and Ralph have a fourth date? The plot needs more time in the bottle.

— Leah A. Zeldes

“Blind Tasting” continues at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays through July 13 at Live Bait Theater, 3914 N. Clark St., Chicago. Tickets are $20 (open seating). Parking, $7, at Blaine School lot, Southport Avenue and Grace Street, about four blocks southwest of the theater; street parking may be available if the Cubs aren’t playing. Call (773) 871-1212 or see