‘Venus in Fur’ – oops, ‘The Scene’ at Writers: Coulda, maybe shoulda, been the other play
Review: “The Scene” by Theresa Rebeck, at Writers Theatre through April 2. ★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
A ditzy girl, who turns out to be a veritable demon, brings a self-absorbed guy crashing down. He doesn’t see it coming, never has a prayer.
Ah, you know that play? Right. It’s David Ives’ “Venus in Fur,” of course. Well, it’s back with us again, more or less, in Theresa Rebeck’s “The Scene” at Writers Theatre. When I say more or less, I mean there’s more involved – actors, situations, sex – but the sum amounts to less of consequence or, along the way, dramatic merit. Granted that Rebeck (who also wrote the brilliant “Seminar”) tapped the vein first (2006), but Ives (2010) extracted greater wealth from it.
Whereas “Venus in Fur” is a mere two-hander that unfolds with consummate concision, wit and punch, “The Scene” involves four characters of whom one is no more than a straw man and another, a woman, is made with only slightly better stuffing.
So let’s start with the two characters who do matter, the very counterparts of the more skillfully drawn twosome in “Venus.” In Ives’ drama, a playwright-director has come to the end of a fruitless day of auditions to find a leading woman, only to have a wacky, unpolished gal burst in and beg him to let her read for the part.
“The Scene” begins at a cool party at an upscale New York apartment, where a motoric monologue by a petite lass of modest intellect finally draws annoyed response from a weathered-looking middle-aged man to whom she’s not speaking at all. The diminutive spout of banalities is Clea (Deanna Myers), whose cliché-riddled and sometimes imponderable speech might eventually get to anyone insufficiently inoculated by alcohol; the perturbed guy is Charlie (Mark L. Montgomery), an out-of-work actor whose despair is redoubling by the day.
Charlie is married to Stella, a woman in the theater biz whose paycheck keeps them afloat. That reality has lately become a bitter pill and Charlie (choose one: falls prey to, finds comfort in, rediscovers his manhood with) the cute if pea-brained Clea.
Here we should give to Charlie’s buddy Lewis (La Shawn Banks) at least the same brief consideration afforded by the playwright. At the outset of this semi-tragic comedy, we don’t know who Lewis is; by the end, we are no less informed. He’s the guy in whose apartment Charlie runs into Clea for the second time. Lewis conveniently goes for Chinese take-out to allow his mainly happily married pal and the girl to – what? – perhaps find common ground for a serious conversation. And they do chat, for a while.
Needlessly long story short, Clea gets her claws into Charlie, then brazenly throws their affair into his wife’s face. Charin Alvarez plays the wife, Stella, in the most – make that the only – nuanced performance in view here. Indeed, in the first scene of Charlie and Stella together, when we see Charlie’s misery and anger over his unemployment, and how his self-abnegation has impaired his ability to get into the audition game again, we glimpse the possibility of a serious, credible, engaging drama. Doesn’t happen.
Instead, the play tumbles into self-parody when partners are changed (“I’ve always loved you, Stella” – say what?), and Charlie’s wife and Lewis, after a scene of serious conflict, find – what was my term – common ground.
Cold-hearted Clea ultimately changes her claws for venom, and Charlie is dead meat, toast. (Then again, venom/toast, maybe not.) Credit Deanna Myers with embodying – a word I use advisedly – one chilling man-killer. But the play allows little range to either Myers or Montgomery, the latter scarcely doing more than whining and grumbling. Lewis might as well be invisible and the playwright tosses Alvarez’s authentic character aside as if she were only complicating this dark farce.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
- Preview of Writers’ complete 2016-17 season: Read it at Chicago On the Aisle