SCENE PARTNERS; Just Out of Focus — Review
Earlier this year, John J. Caswell, Jr.’s excellent Wet Brain continued his fascination with inventively staged plays which use paranormal elements – and, perhaps even more haunting, deeply seated American mythology – to explore family trauma, addiction, and shaky personal narratives. His latest, Scene Partners, starring a courageous Dianne Wiest at the Vineyard Theatre, aims to destabilize these themes by doubling down on the pop culture connections and structural transgressions. Directed by Rachel Chavkin, it’s a daring, very watchable effort that demands attention be paid to Caswell’s work, even if this current presentation misses the mark.
Wiest plays Meryl, a tenacious 75-year-old we meet live from sunny, 1985 Los Angeles – in one of several wonderful video projections designed by David Bengali and produced by Anne Troup – where she promises to tell her story exactly as it happened. Since no one in Hollywood ever shared their biography without at least some embellishment, it’s evident there is something she’d want (or need) to hide. The depths of her awareness regarding these fabrications sustains a distressing undercurrent; though what is performed might look like a snowy Russian train station, she has obviously not arrived in California via “the Mighty Popov-Okroshka Rocket,” and whoever she met on the ride there was certainly not a Soviet era conductor.
Meryl’s past is revealed piecemeal as the play weaves through her self-made chronicle. The people around her–like the situations in which she finds herself—glitch in and out of what she’d like them to be and what they truly are. We learn that, after the death of her abusive husband, with a strained relationship with her sister Charlize (Johanna Day), and her daughter bottoming out on drugs, she’s fled Milwaukee in pursuit of movie star dreams that take root in her psyche. These fantasies are conveyed by footage of Busby Berkeley musicals and General Hospital reruns on Riccardo Hernández set which, while consisting mostly of moving panels made for projection, are employed with infinitely more artistry than all the screens currently littering New York stages.
Her single-mindedness leads to falling in with a patently ridiculous acting class taught by an Australian huckster (Josh Hamilton), and attended by Chuck (Eric Berryman, who also plays, among others, the conductor), Cassie (Carmen M. Herlihy, ditto, one of the romantic train singers), and Pauline (Kristen Sieh, also her daughter). Meryl thinks she can option her auto(-fictional-)biography to a major studio and, sure enough, it leads to stardom–or so she, and we, come to understand.
Built around a gutsy, delusional biddy with old Hollywood bravado, Scene Partners has all the trappings of a classic melodrama, and the production has great fun with the form. At times, it feels like a Charles Busch piece, using the vocabulary of camp to critique the ways American culture has conditioned us to process reality through the lens of ambition. But therein lies the problem: Caswell has much darker goals in mind, and these are made evident early enough. We lock into its state of dissociative trauma early, so from then on it becomes an issue of theatrical language, but it’s a question the play doesn’t figure out how to answer.
Wiest, who won one of two Oscars for playing a boozy diva in Bullets over Broadway, knows how to tackle the material with wit and humor. Speaking in quick, declaratory phrases, she finely conveys the determined qualities which could get someone committed—to psychiatric help or to celluloid. The rest of the cast gamely matches her fearlessness.
But while Wiest gives it her all, her character, as well as the play’s themes, call for serious drama and are answered with camp melodrama. Its kooky sound effects (designed by Leah Gelpe) and diversions into reality-bending vignettes, are sometimes exhilarating; Meryl’s screenplay immediately signals that Caswell could well resuscitate the biopic genre. But too often he jumbles the poignant story within an inch of its life, trying out dozens of postmodernisms in an effort to explain one woman’s profound tragedy through the last century of American pop phenomena.
Caswell and all involved parties have created work of which they should be proud; it’s not often an audience is held in such puzzlement without resulting in exhaustion, animosity or, worse, derision. Scene Partners is far from perfect—if judged totally by its many aims, perhaps a failure—but creates in us what its title promises: a messy, vibrant thing against which we can toss back our own idiosyncrasies.
Scene Partners is in performance through December 17, 2023 at the Vineyard Theatre on East 15th Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.