The New York skyline is ablaze with light. For some the city at night is intoxicating, vitalizing, and alluring and where attractive and influential go-getters make "the scene." For others the city can be enervating, dispiriting, and hostile and where disillusionment and failure prevail. As spectacularly evoked by set designer Kris Stone, the skyline provides an awesome backdrop for Theresa Rebeck’s inexorably caustic and darkly funny play, "The Scene," about winners and losers in the entertainment industry. Although the perspective of the skyline shifts as the action moves between a loft rooftop to three apartment interiors, it remains, whether day or night, imposing and inescapable. And like seductive Clea (Christy McIntosh), one of the play’s key characters, able to disseminate its magnetism as well as devour those it embraces.
Despite its purported savvy and sophistication, New York is as much a lure for opportunists as is Hollywood. Everyone on the B list has "a pilot" in the works and every actor on the C list hungers for a role. As Rebeck reveals it, predators know exactly how to find and work and discard their prey to their advantage.
What happens when Charlie (Matthew Arkin), a middle-aged, out-of-work but married actor, unwittingly gets caught in the web of a clever, sexy, ambitious, and ruthless young woman who appears on the scene? How stupid is Charlie, who is married to a successful TV talk-show talent booker, Stella (Henny Russell), his meal ticket, and with whom he is in the process of adopting a baby? It should have been easy for him to spot the quirkily disarming schemer. But the gullible Charlie needs a boost to his ego, and a quick fling. Clea’s concealed motive and his unguarded recklessness lead to his undoing, but do they?
Although Rebeck is a gifted and prolific playwright, she only this past season had her first Broadway play, "Mauritius," produced by the Manhattan Theater Club. "The Scene," her best play so far in my opinion, caused a stir when it had an extended run in New York last year at the Second Stage.
The good news is that this co-production with the Hartford Stage under the excellent direction of Jeremy B. Cohen is getting a lively staging at George Street Playhouse. The four actors are fully committed to making their roles as vivid and as visceral as possible. And the plot moves toward its surprising conclusion with a wily wit.
Rebeck’s growing canon of cleverly edgy plays such as "The Family of Mann," "Spike Heels," "Bad Dates," and "The Butterfly Collection" only rarely receive the accolades they deserve. Arguably the best among them, "The Scene" is a shrewdly observant. In it, Rebeck has created a most unusual examination of the actor’s dilemma, finding work without losing self-esteem. She has also created an amusing portrait of a femme fatale, whose machinations, despite being deplorable, are humorously deployed.
The play begins on the rooftop terrace of a New York apartment, where a scene-making party is in progress. At first, Charlie is condescending, if not downright rude, to Clea, whose Valley-speak inflections and vapid moralizing define her as profoundly empty headed. Here is an example after Lewis (Liam Craig), Charlie’s best friend, asks her, "So where are you from, Clea?" She answers, "Ohio. Isn’t that hilarious? Plus I just got here, like, what, six months ago? It’s a lot, I mean, to get used to. But it’s so alive, just walking down the street, the energy. I’m like from, you know, the middle of nowhere."
Charlie feels the pressure to find work, but not to the point of sucking up to a loathsome high school buddy who has made it big and is possibly willing to offer him a bit role in a pilot that may or may not get made. He also feels the resulting fallout in his marriage to Stella, who has been labeled by Clea as "an infertile Nazi priestess." Stella may have been taking Charlie for granted, but it is a shock to her when she walks in on him and Clea, the free-spirited, frisky blond temptress, fresh from Ohio, having wild abandoned sex in their living room.
Is this Clea’s revenge because Stella did not give her a job or is Charlie just an intermediary diversion, as was toying with Lewis? What might have been just a retelling of the old story vibrates with edgy twists and flourishes and also plenty of laughs. The motor of the play is the dialogue, which is always bracing, funny, and crisp.
McIntosh is terrific as the arguably ditzy but disingenuous party girl with an artfully calculated agenda. Abandoning her half-hearted seduction of bachelor Lewis for the more challenging Charlie, she flaunts the affair she subsequently has with Charlie in front of a shocked Stella.
The play, however, belongs to Arkin, who after a string of standout but hardly break-out performances in such Off-Broadway productions as "Rounding Third," "Dinner with Friends," "Indian Blood," and "Moonlight and Magnolias," is giving his most emotionally revealing portrayal. As the increasingly despairing Charlie, he is loathe to corrupt his own artistic integrity but yet discovers that he is most vulnerable to everything he hates. Arkin, looking increasingly demoralized and despondent, is giving one of the best performances you are likely to see this season.
Russell impresses as Stella, whose marriage is suddenly on a downward spiral and whose disappointment evolves from shock to rage to resignation. As the more often than not nonplussed Lewis, Craig gives a deftly defined performance that, like the tortoise in Aesop’s fable, keeps his head and wins the prize. Except for the unattractive and unflattering black party dress Clea wears in the opening scene, costume designer Miranda Hoffman dresses the cast smartly. Robert Wierzel’s lighting design deserves kudos for casting the right light on characters caught up in this most invigorating "scene."