‘Scene Partners’ Review: Is She Brilliant? Demented? Both?
“Acting Like a Maniac” is not your typical acting class: You have to sign a personal injury waiver to join it. But then Meryl Kowalski, with that double whammy of a theatrical name, isn’t your typical student. Though 75, she’s no cute oldster; Hugo Lockerby, the guru-like teacher with a wandering accent, thinks she may even be a genius. Performing the autobiographical “blueprint” she’s been writing as an exercise, her fellow students are amazed and baffled by the tale (did she really get an agent at gunpoint?) but also the style. “Do you want it realism or should it be more like whoa,” one asks.
“Scene Partners,” by John J. Caswell Jr., with the transcendent Dianne Wiest as Meryl, is definitely more like whoa.
Twee, snarky, meta, manic, maddening and yet eventually poignant, the play is a moving target, its tone as hard to pin down as its facts. Take the setting, a maybe Hollywood in an iffy 1985. (Also, the Soviet Union and most of the 20th century.) In any case, it’s often impossible to tell whether what we’re watching is Meryl’s life, a film about her life, a dream about the film, a hallucination of the dream, or some other nesting doll of narration.
If the authorial bait-and-switch too often feels like throat-clearing, it does serve a purpose, building around the story a border that is also a blur. In Caswell’s world, as in Meryl’s, limits are always permeable.
“Scene Partners,” which opened on Wednesday at the Vineyard Theater in a top-drawer production directed by Rachel Chavkin, is part of a genre you might call the absurd picaresque. Meryl is a hardheaded Candide, a sharp-eyed Don Quixote. When we meet her just after the long longed-for death of her abusive husband, she is leaving Wisconsin for California so fast she doesn’t bother burying him. “Within the year I will rise to fame and fortune as an international film star,” she says in farewell to her drug addict daughter. Sure enough, she soon acquires not just her agent and acting coach, but also a contract to write the movie of her life.
What makes her life a fit subject for a movie, or even this play, is a useful question. Surely it’s not the banal details: the stepfather, the trauma and the mother who looked away are all tossed off too lightly to stick. Caswell doesn’t at first seem very interested in them except as opportunities to create fascinating verbal spirals, cross-references and death drops, like a game of biographical Chutes and Ladders.
Yet the process of making the banal fascinating is, it seems, Caswell’s point. When Meryl becomes successful, it is not because her life has been special; hers is the stardom of the ordinary, built on perseverance not glamour, and on the recognition that the only thing keeping her from her life goals is her life. “We lose countless masters like this woman,” says Hugo (Josh Hamilton, hilarious yet also noble), “simply because they lacked a certain access at a certain time in history.” The play’s structural gymnastics, which also make room for the possibility of dementia, give Meryl that access, and elevate her.
As does Wiest. It’s a little rich to have her play a character in an acting class, considering how many acting classes she’s given over the years, onstage and on film. Still, it’s a great pleasure to watch her make Meryl’s innocence and bloodthirstiness equally believable, equally fresh. The same age as her character, with more than 50 years of theater behind her, Wiest nevertheless seems to be discovering herself each moment, in material that can’t make that easy.
The difficulty, though occasionally an indulgence — even at just 105 minutes, “Scene Partners” could stand a 10-minute trim — is also the play’s great distinction. And Chavkin, while maintaining the level of stylishness that has become her trademark in musicals like “Hadestown” and “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” is careful not to flatten its extremes. Her rigorous production commits to both cold stretches and warm ones, ripe satire (a nimble supporting cast covers dozens of characters) and barely spoken tragedy. Sometimes — as in scenes with Johanna Day (excellent) as Meryl’s sister — the crosscurrents shift so quickly you don’t know which kind you’re in.
Perhaps what we feel tugging at us in those moments is the undertow of addiction and abuse in the story — subjects Caswell has also touched on in his two previous major New York outings, “Wet Brain” and “Man Cave.” Both embraced the surreal as a way of repairing and elevating what appear to be unimportant, unsalvageable lives. Yet by ricocheting off others, in an absurd plane if necessary, they may achieve a kind of magnificence.
Indeed, when an interviewer, suspicious of Meryl’s story, asks if she’s ever heard of delusions of grandeur, she answers: “Oh yes, and they can be so helpful!” Without them, we might not have grandeur (or plays, or great actors) at all.
Through Dec. 17 at the Vineyard Theater, Manhattan; vineyardtheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.