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The Wine Seller

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THE WINE SELLER, Baum House, at the Athenaeum Theatre. Chicago playwright Jason Sheldon seems to have forgotten nothing about his years as a dishwasher, server, and manager at a pointlessly trendy restaurant in rural Ohio, re-creating the doomed establishment and its personnel with nostalgic zeal. The alcoholic owner gets mired in gambling debts to a Cleveland mobster, the wait staff are preoccupied with unstable romances and cigarette breaks (depicted all too faithfully), while everyone faces the daily challenge of keeping lettuce fresh and napkins clean.

The details are credible: grumpy, beer-swilling cooks; quickies in the basement john; wine lore that's a bore. But the sitcom plot, set in an improbably busy wine cellar, is shopworn and predictable when it's not unbelievable. (A bartender overhears the restaurateur being forced to sell the eatery by a gangster who beats him up--and never says a word.) Worst is the implausible, gratuitously violent melodramatic ending.

Seen in preview, Matthew Gunnels's energetic staging unfortunately exposes the play's utter lack of purpose. Still, Cate Mannion has fun as the good-time girl who knows how to turn a work break into a short orgy, and as the author's surrogate Jason Wilson well recalls the frustration of being dumped before your time. But Sheldon, playing the proprietor, is an unlovable loser whose howling self-pity forfeits sympathy and credibility. Some memories should fade, not take on more color.

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