Monday, February 21, 2011

Theater review: Theresa Rebeck goes mythic with 'The Scene' at Portland Playhouse

Nikki Weaver, Leif Norby, Laura Faye-Smith
By Barry Johnson

Peculiar and wonderful, Theresa Rebeck's The Scene as staged by Portland Playhouse tells a sad tale. An out-of-work actor loses his home, his marriage, his best friend and every shred of his dignity over the course of the play. But it is also funny, hilarious even. And at the end of the play, you wonder how so much comedy has laughed its way through such much disintegration.

I blame Clea. Or rather, I praise Clea, because she is a very great invention, a vehicle of devilment so subtle that she capsizes all of the naturalistic inclinations of American theater and leaves them sinking as she sails blithely into the sunset.

Clea is a character in Rebeck's play. But she's not a character in the way we usually think of characters. She's not a representative of something real, though she's probably a refinement, a reductio ad absurdam, of someone real.  In his glowing review of the play, the New York Times critic, Christopher Isherwood, said that she resembled all the young attractive women in Manhattan hitting the party scene in little black dresses and very high heels. And I agree, that there's enough of resemblance for her to sneak under our radar -- we think of her as a traditional character.

But come on. Clea's mythic; she's not human, she just looks that way. At one point the actor whose life she has crumpled calls her soulless. And that's true enough, but beside the point. At another point, he calls her a god. And that's exactly how I think of her now. Rebeck has created a goddess, a Fury maybe, given her the language of a vapid '90s co-ed who's well-versed in magazine pop psychology, and then set her loose on Gotham, specifically on the lives of Charlie, his wife Stella and his best friend Lewis. Mere mortals, they don't stand a chance.

Now, we've seen this sort of thing in zombie movies, and science-fiction pot-boilers like the Species movies. But Rebeck's Clea has more nuance than that. She's more like Diana Christensen in Paddy Chayefsky's film Network, directed by Sidney Lumet with Faye Dunaway as Diana. A "real" situation is going on around her, but her presence kicks it into the land of the surreal. Rebeck inserts her into a little four-hander, in which all the rest of the characters are mostly believable, and yes, the surreal starts to bust out all over.

Clea herself uses the word surreal to describe life in New York, and she's immediately set upon by Charlie for her imprecision. They are at a party and Lewis is trying to cozy up to her, even though he's carried a torch for a very long time for Charlie's wife Stella. Hey, she's cute! And peculiar enough to seem like easy prey, with her loose usage of words like surreal. Plus, she's just arrived from Ohio, her mother's an alcoholic and she just seems a little vulnerable. Uh no. Wrong. She's not. She's armed to teeth and she's looking for prey of her own.

Charlie isn't William Holden in Network. He's a combination of William Holden and Peter Finch as Howard Beale. Rebeck uses him to convey an acid analysis of the toxicity of the American media machine. His rant on a particularly bad lunch about a vile TV pilot ("It's so bad it's actually conceivable that they are going to make it") puts him in Clea's sights. Like Holden, he finds himself mesmerized by the young woman pursuing him, though Clea is a lot sexier than the virginal Diana.  And suddenly his marriage of more than a decade is in jeopardy, even though Stella is a stand-up wife, who supports them both as a booker for a TV talk show, a job she hates.

Nikki Weaver as Clea plots more destruction./Photo by Brian Weaver
A couple more things about Clea, though we're starting to get into the plot, and so it's time for a spoiler alert.

Clea's primary weapon, besides her magnetic sexuality, is the non-question question: "Do you want to kiss me?" Or: "Do you want to have sex with me." Faced with these questions the male hooked on the line is in a quandary. If he says yes, then she complains that she's simply a sex object to him. If he says no, she says, that's too bad because I wanted to kiss you. It's not a question, it's  a way to build desire, a means of control. What does she desire? Nothing really: Remember, Clea's not a "real" person. She's a test, a scourge, a Puck.

And caught in an embarrassing situation, she feels no shame. "I think 'should' is a useless word," she says. And why should she bow to Stella's prior (and stronger) claim on Charlie, anyway? "He's nobody with you; with me he's a lion roaming the Earth, he's a god." Mere mortals can't achieve that particular sort of transformation.

Lewis is her first target, though she abandons him for Charlie, perhaps because there's more mischief to be made with him. And in hindsight, Lewis pegs her: "I knew she was some kind of succubus and I asked her over anyway." And Charlie, who at first argues against all of her formulations, eventually parrots them, from her description of Stella to her observation that the world is surreal.

My point is simply this: We shouldn't consider this play "naturalistic" or even as satire, though it has elements of both in it.  The supernatural Clea makes it a different sort of creation, a fable or maybe a myth. She is the agent of "surrealism." And though we may nod and chuckle at Charlie's inspired rants about the acting business or Stella's complaints about the media business, those are just ancillary to the fable at hand: The gods are fickle; Fate can arrive in a pair of high heel shows and well-shaped calves; when we seek the impossible, Nemesis cuts us off at the knees.

I'm running against the critical tide here, perhaps.  Isherwood writes that the play lacks psychological nuance, which I think is beside the point. And he suggests that Rebeck's point is essentially social:  "The doomed Charlie is seen as both a victim of, and a symptom of, a morally corrupt culture."  And in his review of the Portland Playhouse production, The Oregonian's Marty Hughley also calls it a "social satire." Corrupt culture? How about the human condition itself.

Does the Portland Playhouse production, directed by the New York-based Tamara Fisch, emphasize the mythic? I think maybe it does -- the set is spartan (the actors move the furniture around to indicate scene changes) and abstract and that keeps the action of the play from sinking into a particular real place. The intimacy of the theater makes the cast seem larger somehow, the rants louder, the dialog more intense and somehow symbolic at the same time.

But a big part of it for me is Nikki Weaver's version of Clea -- she just seems otherworldly. It's hard to put my finger on, exactly, but maybe it's her voice, which delivers sweet, seductive and blunt as the occasion arises with the flick of an inflection or a melodic sing-song. She moves well in a physical part, dancing up to her prey, lounging comfortably, reaching out deliberately to land an intimate little touch, and when she stiffens, it's a device. She's showing resistance as a strategy, not as a involuntary reaction. Is there anything involuntary about Clea? No, the gods are deliberate.  It's a superior job of incarnating a strange stage being.

The mere mortals have to keep it real, except for Leif Norby as Charlie, the ranter, who is an emptier vessel for Clea to fill than he thinks. Clea nails him: He is nothing. Norby's disintegration in the face of the Whirlwind is painful to watch and full of classic gestures, forehead dropped to hand or palms exposed in supplication. But he takes full advantage of his rants against a world arranged so perversely against him, and he's got the physical energy to keep up with Weaver's Clea.

Laura Faye-Smith tries to prod her man into action, inflict some damage on a Demon, talk her man down from the precipice and rebuild her life, which she does with good sense and a good sense of Stella. Does she know what's going on? No, not really. But she has a life to live and accepts her limitations, which makes her collateral damage not the main target.  And Ty Hewitt has great scenes  with Weaver as he tries to unlock the "do you want to kiss me" conundrum, which finally reduces him to a passive blob.  You can't argue with an Immortal.

A film version of The Scene exists called Seducing Charlie Barker, and given the naturalizing effects of most films, I suspect it's less mythic and more psychological. I'm curious to see it, but I'm not going to like it if Clea loses her unnatural powers: She's a great character.


We should point out that Rebeck gets misinterpreted a lot, most famously in Bruce Weber's New York Times review of The Butterfly Collection, which was almost enough to shut down Rebeck's writing for the stage, such is the power of the Times. Rebeck discussed the effects of that review, and its charge that the play was "agenda-based," that agenda being some sort of aggressive feminism, in a speech she gave about women and the theater world. It's well-worth a read and should give all of us who write about the arts some pause. Could we be wrong? Yes, we could!