Where: Writers Theatre, Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
When: through April 2
By ANNE SPISELMAN
In the opening scene of Theresa Rebeck’s “The Scene,” which takes place at a party on a downtown penthouse terrace high above Manhattan, two fortysomething men in the entertainment industry (like the host) meet an attractive young woman in a skin-tight little black dress who arouses their contempt as soon as she opens her mouth. Hyper-confident and highly defensive, Clea (Deanna Myers) spews vacuous observations and pop psychology clichés with the syntax, rising inflections, and conviction of a Valley Girl, even though she claims to have recently arrived from Ohio. She also rails against alcohol, then takes big swigs of vodka. One of the things that irritates Charlie (Mark L. Montgomery) the most, though, is her loose use of “surreal” to describe everything: the view, the air, the water.
By the end of the biting satire, which morphs from comedy to tragedy, Charlie, a once successful but long out-of-work actor in the midst of a mid-life crisis, will have become ensnared by the rapacious, ambitious Clea and totally self-destructed, wrecking his marriage to Stella (Charin Alvarez), alienating even his best friend Lewis (La Shawn Banks), and wandering New York, where he finds Times Square completely “surreal” with its huge images of celebrities staring down like gods.
As it happens, the Writers Theatre production of “The Scene” strikes me as surreal, too. Departing from the 2006 premiere at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, which later moved on to New York, director Kimberly Senior has cast the Chicago premiere with diversity clearly in mind. Charlie is white, Lewis is black, Stella is Latin American (and sometimes breaks into Spanish when she’s angry), and Clea is Asian American, arguably reinforcing the stereotype of the Asian tigress. This schematic may be in tune with our times, yet the characters and script still come across as dated.
Brian Sidney Bembridge’s splendid scenic design featuring a raked, reflective grid of metal and
Plexiglas, reinforces the air of unreality. Sarah Hughey’s lighting—starry night sky to softer living rooms—a couch, a few other props, and monitor with changing paintings—signal the move from one apartment to another, along with Richard Woodbury’s original music and sound design. Nan Zabriskie’s costumes range from perfect (Clea) to oddly off the mark (Stella).
Although Rebeck has a good ear for dialogue, some of which is very funny, the characters also indulge in long monologues that are delivered full force as set pieces—like no one speaks in real life. Most potent is Charlie’s enraged rant about his humiliating attempt to ask Nick, a former schoolmate turned successful television writer, for a role in his tv pilot, a show that Charlie thinks is so bad, it might just get made. Charlie practically bursts in on Lewis to recount this lunch meeting, gulping down vodka to calm himself and pretty much dismissing Clea, who Lewis has invited over for a drink despite his initial disdain for her. It is at this point, however, that calculating Clea turns her attention to Charlie, flattering his ego and using her sexuality to lure him in.
Reluctant at first, Charlie is a pretty easy mark, especially since he was pushed into sucking up to Nick by Stella. We don’t learn that much about her except that her job is booking guests for a television talk show, she’s good at it but hates it, she’s been supporting Charlie since his acting career dried up, and they’re having fertility problems and are in the final stages of adopting a baby from China. As Charlie recklessly sets about ruining his marriage, he accuses his wife of being too “competent,” basically blaming her for his self-hatred and bad behavior.
What Clea wants in all this, it seems, is to get ahead in the industry. We learn in the first scene that she’s unsuccessfully applied for a job as assistant to a tv producer, a woman she mocks for using highlighters and refers to as the “Nazi Priestess.” How much her subsequent behavior owes to this experience remains an open question. But she soon gets fed up with Charlie and moves on to a better prospect—Nick. Myers gives a terrific performance, but she’s such a toxic piece of work, so manipulative and mean, that it’s impossible to care about her.
Montgomery also acts up a storm, but from his opening scowling countenance to the climactic over-the-top “Othello” moment, he’s not very believable. I found myself thinking, “oh, well, he’s supposed to be an actor and they’re given to self-dramatization,” but that’s not entirely satisfactory. Nor does he inspire any sympathy, since he’s responsible for—and a willing participant in—his own downfall.
Alvarez, a fine actress, doesn’t seem quite right for Stella, though the role is underwritten, so it’s hard to tell. Mostly she’s reacting to how Charlie treats her, but at least her pain and suffering are fairly convincing. On the other hand, the cracks in her marriage go back far enough that her response to Lewis, who says he’s loved her for a long time, is no surprise. This part also is underwritten, and Banks deals with it by being the easy-going supportive friend who is somewhat mannered and uncomfortable enough to make those around him feel uncomfortable, too.
On balance, “The Scene” is one of those plays that seems smart while you’re watching it but surprisingly shallow in retrospect. Bembridge’s scenic design and Myers’ performance as Clea are the highlights of the production at Writers Theatre, though Clea definitely belongs on the list of characters we love to hate.