To put an equal-opportunity twist on a classic Freudian question: What do people want? And to narrow the parameters of that question to focus on one of the more self-involved little corners of the world: What do generally over-privileged, narcissistic, insecure New Yorkers — who to one degree or another are caught up in (or aspire to) the arts, entertainment and celebrity culture —really want?
‘THE SCENE’ Somewhat recommended When: Through April 2 Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe Tickets: $35 – $80 Info: http://www.writerstheatre.org Run time: 2 hours, with one intermission
These are the hardly earth-shattering questions posed in “The Scene,” Theresa Rebeck’s brittle but easily seductive satire that could easily be subtitled “Fifty Shades of That Girl in the Little Black Dress.” The play, which debuted in New York in 2007, is now receiving its Chicago area debut at Writers Theatre, and while its four-person cast, under the direction of Kimberly Senior, could not be better, in the end the whole exercise feels every bit as empty as the behavior Rebeck is trying to decry. And long before it’s all over you might well find yourself posing this question: Who really cares?
The whole thing is set in motion at a party at a hip downtown apartment (expertly suggested by Brian Sidney Bembridge’s dramatically disorienting, gently raked glass box set, lit by Sarah Hughey). It is there that Charlie (Mark Montgomery), a once successful stage and television actor who has been unemployed for some time, and his good friend, Lewis (La Shawn Banks), encounter Clea (Deanna Myers), whose name aptly echoes the sorceress in Marvel Comics.
Petite and undeniably eye-catching, the twentysomething Clea is dressed in a skin-tight little black dress. It’s when she launches into her inane yet distinctive babble that the trouble starts. With a voice more grating than the proverbial nail-on-a-chalkboard, and decidedly dated Valley Girl intonations (though she claims to be a recent arrival from Ohio), Clea has a head full of pop-psychology tropes and retorts —some unintentionally very funny —and a penchant for using the word “surreal” that drives Charlie up a wall.
Defensively proclaiming that she is neither stupid nor an alcoholic like her mother (despite taking great swigs of vodka), Clea turns out to be quite a piece of work —an exceptionally shrewd manipulator wholly aware of her power as a blunt talker and sex object. And while Charlie, clearly in the throes of a midlife crisis, is initially repulsed by Clea, he also is not immune to her, despite (or more to the point, because) his wife of 10 years, Stella (Charin Alvarez), is beautiful and supremely competent and has a well-paid job with a television talk show. The couple, who have had infertility problems, also is well into the process of adopting a baby from China.
It is the shy, single Lewis (La Shawn Banks) —who harbors a nobly suppressed passion for Stella —who initially acts on catching up with Clea. But it is Charlie who becomes ensnared with her and lets his whole life come crashing down around him.
Senior has made some interesting casting choices for this production, replacing the all-white lineup of the original New York edition with a more diverse crowd emblematic of the city’s boho crowd. Most notably she has cast an Asian-American actress as Clea. And seen alongside a similarly hateful, chatty, amoral “tigress” character played by Jennifer Kim in the current Goodman Theatre production ofBranden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Gloria” (which limns a not dissimilar little slice of Manhattan humanity, or inhumanity), you might be tempted to ask: Isn’t the tigress becoming something of a repellent ethnic cliche? That said, Myers is as sensational and relentless as her character is maddeningly irritating and witch-like. And she easily turns Nan Zabriskie’s ideal costumes into featured players. Lewis is played by an African American actor and Alvarez, a Latino actress, breaks into fluent Spanish at moments.
It is Montgomery, however, who is at the epicenter of this play in many ways, and the always superb actor is perfection as a dissipated but still handsome wreck who sows the seeds of his own destruction. Montgomery is at his very best when he riffs on the “surreal” spectacle of Times Square, with its wholly vacuous, artificial, yet larger-than-life billboards of celebrities —taunting “gods” who trigger a meaningless quest for something in the lives of far too many people. And even if Rebeck gives us an upended “Othello”-like scene that takes things way over the top, Montgomery and Myers go for it with total commitment.
The two supporting characters here feel underwritten, although as Lewis, Banks gives a beautifully honed portrait of a man who worships the wrong people in his own quiet way. The always elegant Alvarez does the best she can with what is given to her.
Though the play references the 1990s as a bygone era, “The Scene” was written during the “bubble” before the onset of the 2008 recession. And now it might just serve as something of a retro cautionary tale of its own during the era of Trump and company.