The Scene by Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Mary Bacon, Tim Daly, Carolyn Holding, Geoffrey Arend; photo provided
"So not what I am about."
A good play drops hints that an astute play-goer sometimes picks up and runs with. In the first scene of Theresa Rebeck’s play, "The Scene," which has opened the summer season at the Dorset Theatre Festival, a young woman with a tendency to ramble on in monologue while two men listen attentively to her spiel drops a big one. "So not what I am about," she says after using the word "surreal" at least three times to describe the night and the view and the situation. Surreal: "having an oddly dreamlike quality," says my dictionary and, call the girl an idiot as much as you want, she is absolutely right about the condition that overtakes everyone seen on stage in this play.
Absolute realism takes our attention. Charley, a good actor with a good reputation, is out of work, has been out of work for some time. His wife, Stella, works in production and has a man-sized career that supports them both. Their friend Lewis does - something; he’s not the best written person in this play. Then there is Clea. Clea is beautiful, very young, an ingenue in the best sense of that work and in the worst as well. She has no talent except for seduction. She has no aspirations, dreams or hopes, except for seduction. She is a machine made for seducing unsuspecting men, even those who can see through her game and yet still succumb. She is a social succubus, a demon. And this demon sets her sights on Charley.
She is also a twenty-first century vision of Carmen, or Carmen Jones if that’s easier, but unlike Carmen who is strangled at the end of her play and done away, it is not so easy to kill the demon succubus. Deep down, Clea is Circe, the ancient enchantress who brings men to their undoing. Circe’s men are transformed into feral lions and Clea uses the lion metaphor more than once when seducing Charley. In the legend Circe is downgraded by Odysseus but Charley is no warrior, no king, but just an actor and what is an actor but a man trained to assume other natures, other identities. He is an easy captive, a slave to the sensual attractions of his demon. By the play’s end the comedy is transforming into inevitable tragedy and the human traits of the protagonist (I cannot call him a hero, sorry) are sorely diminished. The lion in him is gone and his Circe, Clea, has started the transformation of this man into a pig.
All of this so that Clea can get into the New York scene, the social whirl of men and women who have disposable income, who can play all night and still play all day. This single ambition is at the root of it all, and who better than the demon princess to engage in the downfall of others so that she may rise to the top. This is the play that Rebeck has written.
Tim Daly, an actor whose own career has seen remarkable sustained periods at the top of his game, is the perfect choice for Charley, an actor whose career seems to have paralleled Daly’s own career. He is a handsome man with a strong voice and a stage presence that seems to radiate from deep within his family history (his father was James Daly and his older sister is Tyne Daly). In this role he plays the depths of a man who sees his career falter and who has the strength to resist doing schlock but who becomes entranced by a woman whose basest qualities he can clearly see in every moment of their relationship. As she drags Charley downward Daly lets us see the internal struggles. His voice, body, face and hands reveal so much about this fight to the finish. Daly handles the emotional bloodbath with assurance and talent and it is all the more difficult to not sympathize with him in this disaster. He has brought this all on himself and he knows it from the first moment of capitulation.
His friend, Lewis, is played by Geoffrey Arend as well as anyone could manage. His character is just uninteresting and there’s nothing an actor could make of it beyond what Arend plays here. He is an almost sympathetic character, but that is stolen from him in the final minutes of the play when he becomes another manipulated man at the hands of a strong woman.
Strong defines in a single word the character of Stella. We are actually grateful for beautiful breakdown she suffers through the fine work of actress Mary Bacon. Bacon handles as many changes in mood, emotion and strength as Daly, though she never has to drop to the same lows as him. She always seems to be on target and nothing is faked here. Her anger, her despair, her sexual highs are all in keeping with the author’s intentions. Bacon does herself proud as she takes us with her on a rocky journey toward the sexual and romantic freedom the suffragettes had experienced a century earlier.
Clea, the demon who uses naivete, stupidity, insipidity and sex in equal measure to attain her goals, is played by Carolyn Holding who takes on each and every challenge here with outrageous strength and determination. This is a wonderful actress whose growth must have been incredible to watch. Unfortunately this is our first encounter and like Clea’s meeting with Charlie there is sensual tension cropping up everywhere. Her work is compelling. She makes you want to write only about her. The trustworthy critic has to pull back and restrain himself for the demon she portrays must be calling on something in the actress for they do not separate easily. In other words, this is a dynamite performance, one that startles and upsets you while drawing you closer, even against your diminishing will.
The director has done a superb job with the play. Where the play is weak Adrienne Campbell-Holt has managed to bring our attention to a physical action that easily masks an awkward physical transformation or an over-long speech that threatens to be a monologue of Tom Stoppard length and pretension. She has molded her cast into a fine ensemble with no star much brighter than any other on stage.
She has had help from John McDermott whose set and scenery move and flow with the play. Kaye Voice has offered costumes here that occasionally startle and which are never wrong for their characters. Michael Giannitti lighting design works beautifully for the complexities of the production. M.L. Dogg’s sound work helps to set up both the romance and the anger.
Theresa Rebeck has written better plays but she has never created more interesting characters. Reportedly she has been rewriting the play for this production so if you’ve already seen "The Scene" this new scene is the unseen. Not having experienced the play before all I can is whatever she’s doing must be taking her along the path she always intended to travel with this one. Should I ever meet her, I will definitely ask her about it.
The Scene plays at the Dorset Theatre Festival at 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, Vermont through July 7. For information and tickets call the box office at 808-867-2223 or go on line at www.dorsettheatrefestival.org.