To paraphrase an old commercial, a great plot is a terrible thing to waste. Take John J. Caswell’s disappointing “Scene Partners,” now at the Vineyard Theatre, which squanders an opportunity to be truly poignant by layering a lot of neo-absurdism and needless nonsense into a potentially compelling story,
Well-acted by its versatile six-person cast – led by the indomitably fierce and funny Dianne Wiest in a must-see performance that draws from her expertise with the works of Anton Chekov and Samuel Beckett -- this tall tale is likely to leave too many audience members baffled by its frequent non-sequiturs and copious omissions of facts. Indeed, when the play ends (in about 100 sometimes long minutes), you may feel like you’ve spent your time doing the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle but will never get to see the answers.
Alternatively, I believe if Caswell had told the odyssey of sharp-tongued and seemingly sharp-witted 75-year-old widow Meryl Kowalski (Wiest) -- who leaves snow-covered Wisconsin in 1985 to finally fulfill her dreams of being a Hollywood star -- in a more straightforward fashion, the result would have been far more satisfying (even if it wouldn’t be quite believable).
Still, to both Caswell and Wiest’s considerable credit, we ache for Meryl the more we learn about her life, which includes a very troubled childhood, an estrangement for her younger half-sister Charlize (a no-nonsense Johanna Day), a long and miserable marriage, and some kind of devastating illness (which Caswell oddly refuses to ever specify!)
Moreover, we can’t help but admire her dedication to personal and artistic fulfillment – regardless of whether she possesses genuine talent. And thanks to Wiest’s own dedication, we delight in watching Meryl at her most outrageous –including seducing a (Soviet?) man on a train (a handsome Eric Berryman), tossing off four-letter words without the slightest hesitation, threatening to shoot a studio executive (Josh Hamilton, having a blast in two roles, including Meryl’s acting coach/film director) or leaving behind her whiny, drug-addicted daughter Flora (Kristen Sieh, excelling in a large number of parts) to fend for herself.
But like her blowsy wardrobe (the show’s costumes are by Brenda Abbandandolo), Wiest’s Meryl does contain layers. We see her genuine concern for Flora in a sequence where it appears her daughter’s life might be in danger; we see her trying (in her own way) to repair the rift with Charlize, with whom she ends up staying in L.A., and, above all, we see how much she misses her long-dead father, who is partly responsible for her Tinseltown dreams.
But the usually wonderful director Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) hasn’t totally found her way into this material, robbing the show of some of its humor -- and injecting TV screens a la Ivo Van Hove isn’t really the answer. (The video and projection design by David Bengali isn’t to blame and set designer Riccardo Hernandez does what he can with a play that is inherently cinematic.)
Admittedly, there are many moments during “Scene Partners” when you may want to change the channel. Luckily, even in the show’s most static moments, Wiest is always eminently watchable!
By Brian Scott Lipton
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