In “Scene Partners,” we first see Dianne Wiest in close-up on a screen, as pink and bejeweled as a movie star, though more nervous than one, as she says: “Hello! I’m Meryl Kowalski, coming to you from sunny Los Angeles, California. And this is exactly how it happened.”
It takes a while for theatergoers to learn what Meryl is talking about at all, and we are never certain what happens in “Scene Partners,” John J. Caswell, Jr.’s ambitious, whimsical, confounding play, opening tonight at Vineyard Theater in an elaborately staged production directed by Rachel Chavkin that relies heavily on pre-recorded videos and projections.
After that elegant closeup of her face on screen, we finally meet Dianne Wiest in person on stage, first only from the waist down, dressed in frumpy clothes and descending from one of those vintage dumbwaiters, used to bring food or trash from one floor to another
This may, or may not, be part of a recurrent dream Meryl has.
In any case, bit by bit, we piece together that Meryl Kowalski is a recent widow from Wisconsin, who decides, at the age of 75, to move to Hollywood to become a movie star. She feels liberated by the death of her abusive husband, whose name was Stanley Kowalski. (“I have no idea who’s responsible for feeding the details of my life to Mr. Williams for his little play,” Meryl says, an example of the playwright’s whimsy.) Leaving before Stanley’s funeral, she takes a train, where she has sex with the conductor to forget her past (or, as she tells him, “I want you to fuck me back inside of myself.”) On arrival, she pulls a gun on a talent agent, apparently as a way of getting his attention. Rather than call the police, Herman (Josh Hamilton) is impressed with her performance and sends her to an acting class, with an Australian acting teacher named Hugo (also Hamilton), who changes accents in successive scenes from British to American to Italian but always speaks in an actor-bubble’s psychobabble. Hugo decides to make his feature film directorial debut about the life of Meryl Kowalski. Her agent tells her that Meryl will have to audition for the role.
There are any number of clues throughout “Scene Partners” that most of Meryl’s adventures are happening only in her own mind. We see her sister Charlize (Johanna Day) taking her to a doctor (Eric Berryman) who gives her an unhappy diagnosis (which is not disclosed to us.) We see her fearfully regarding a mysterious man in a trench coat. Characters sometimes suddenly vanish (in the videos) as if Meryl had conjured them and was now dispensing with them. We eventually learn that she was raped by her stepfather but nobody believed her, that there has been other dysfunction and trauma in her life (her father disappeared, her daughter is a drug addict), and that she spent time in a psychiatric hospital.
During a TV talk show segment, the interviewer asks: “Meryl, have you ever heard of delusions of grandeur?”
“Oh yes,” Meryl replies, “and they can be so helpful.”
Later during that same segment, Hugo says he was drawn to film Meryl’s life because “the story of Meryl shifts under your feet.”
Yet, there are other clues that Meryl’s adventures are meant to be real. If the off-the-wall episodes were only occurring inside Meryl’s own delusional psyche, why would they be so tinged with satire? Her late-in-life moviemaking takes up the bulk of the play, with the other members of Hugo’s acting class (Berryman again, Carmen M. Herlihy, Kristen Sieh) rehearsing scenes that are episodes of the movie that Hugo is making about Meryl Kowalski’s life. A “Letter from the Playwright” in the program suggests that we all live our lives as if they are plays; it ends with a quote not from Shakespeare but from Charlie Chaplin: “Life is a play that does not allow testing. So, sing, cry, dance, laugh and live intensely, before the curtain closes and the piece ends with no applause.”
A previous play by Caswell, “Wet Brain,” which I saw earlier this year at Playwrights Horizons, mixes family dysfunction and trauma with science fiction, and I suspect he’s doing much the same thing in “Scene Partners” and for much the same reason: It’s less stressful to explore trauma obliquely, fancifully.
But “Wet Brain” ultimately clarified what it was about, shining a light on its darkness. “Scene Partners” keeps us guessing. The play is bolstered by a strong cast with an impressive track record: Wiest with her Academy Awards of course, but she has also been mesmerizing on stage, most memorably of late in Beckett’s Happy Days on stage at TFANA; and I fondly remember Johanna Day in “Sweat,” and Eric Berryman most recently in “Primary Trust,” where he portrayed the main character’s imaginary friend (!) The stagecraft features the work of video producer Anne Troup and projection designer David Bengali dominating more scenes than is usual for a show in a relatively small Off-Broadway house. But the solid production can’t completely compensate for the elusiveness of the script. The playwright of “Scene Partners” is withholding, making his scene partners – which is to say, the actors and the audience — do too much of the work.
Vineyard Theater through December 17
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.
Written by John J. Caswell, Jr.
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Scenic design by Riccardo Hernández, costume design by Brenda Abbandandolo, lighting design by Alan Edwards, sound design by Leah Gelpe, video and projection design by David Bengali, prop design by Andrew Diaz, hair and wig design by Leah Loukas, and tapestry design by Patricia Marjorie,. Anne Troup is the video producer
Cast: Dianne Wiest as Meryl, Eric Berryman as Dr. Noah Drake and others, Johanna Day as Charlize, Josh Hamilton as Hugo and others, Carmen M. Herlihy as Cassie and others, and Kristen Sieh as Pauline and others.