The day after I attended Dorset Theatre Festival's "The Scene," by Theresa Rebeck, I went to a funeral to see one of my family's best friends bury her child. Afterwards I felt empty. But Rebeck's play the night before, directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, had prepared me, because when I had left her extensively rewritten black comedy, I took away a similar void.
Clearly, that was by design, and a tribute to the playwright. Rebeck, who has done extensive work in both film and TV, knows much about the show business world, and tackles some of its visceral aspects with an insider's knowledge, as well as with biting sarcasm. If anything, she drives the punches home to their intended target: below the belt, but not unfair.
The action begins at a trendy Manhattan party where former sitcom star but now unemployed Charlie (Tim Daly), along with his best friend Lewis (Geoffrey Arend), meet young, comely Ohio aspirant Clea (Carolyn Holding), who annoys and irritates. Like a spider weaving a wide net, Clea attracts all types to her whimsical ramblings of Valley Girl meets vamp.
It turns out Clea had been turned down by Charlie's wife Stella (Mary Bacon), a highly successful casting agent. A double-edged conundrum faces Charlie, and he's left with a number of choices, and almost all of them are bad. His downward spiral then begins.
There is much to like about this play, and it starts with the actors. But before going there, a few things remain perplexing, and deserve mention.
One is the excessive use of the f-bomb. Far from this reviewer being a prude, and rather quite familiar with the term on an intimate level, still, its deployment in Rebeck's play is, at times, distracting. Audience members can easily be waylaid trying to digest it instead of catching the essence of its surrounding dialogue. Whatever satire or grittiness to be gained from that level of usage is minimal.
The play also needs a stronger cue at the end of the first act. Even with house lights fully on, nobody budged from their seat to acknowledge the intermission. For all the play's shrewd edginess, something is absent in that one critical spot.
But those really are logistical matters of the script; now, here are reasons this play is a must-see:
This is the third year in a row Dorset artistic director Dina Janis has attracted top-flight star-power to the sleepy environs of the Northshire. Her relationships with luminaries such as Rebeck and Michael Cristofer are a major reason.
And so we should be giddy to see Daly on top of his game and looking not much older than when we laughed along with him during the successful run of his sitcom, "Wings." Daly is funny and tragic - never an easy stunt to pull off. His rant on the vagaries of landing a part in a pilot is classically rendered, and probably has more truth in it than any TV executive would like to admit.
Arend and Bacon both gave this play solid performances which perfectly framed Charlie's predicament against the backdrop of a vacuous show biz mentality. Rebeck's gloves were off here, and both these experienced actors were bookends of fortitude (in Stella) and ineptitude (in Lewis) holding up Daly's tatters for view.
The top honors go to Holding, hands down. Clea gives her so many opportunities to show up her broad skill set, which includes diction at the rate of machine gun fire, and physical comedy par excellence, bringing out the gum-chewing drama queen in us all.
John McDermott's multipurpose set was superb and at times haunting in its presentation. Costumes by Kay Voice, especially Clea's battery of black outfits, were a splendid addition to the character's mythology. Lights by Michael Gianniti followed the expected path of excellence he has established. Sound by M.L. Dogg fit the Manhattan scene well, and stage management by Melissa Daroff was clearly tight and precise.
This play is rife with humorous lines, but it's important to note that it's a serious work, and Rebeck a serious writer. In jest is always some element of truth, and you must see "The Scene" to appreciate how it comes full circle, and why, despite an emptiness lingering afterward, that's a very good thing.
If you go ...
What: "The Scene"
Where: Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Rd. in Dorset, Vt.
When: Through July 7
Tickets: dorsettheatrefestival.org, 802-867-2223