"How can you know so much and so little at the same time?"
Early in the second act of the new play The Scene at Second Stage, those words are spoken to the sexy, slinky embodiment of worldly vapidity known as Clea. Yet it's not that blonde, bubble-headed philosopher who's the most appropriate target of that complimentary derision. No, it's The Scene's playwright, Theresa Rebeck, who employs enough endless and directionless cogitating to make this potentially thoughtful comedy more worth forgetting than thinking about.
On the most obvious level, apparently where Rebeck feels the most comfortable here, The Scene deals with concerns of growing up and learning how to make and honor commitments that may alter your life and those of your friends and/or lovers. (The lines can be a bit blurry, don't you know.) Looked at from another, more commercial, vantage point, it's an opportunity for sitcom stars like Tony Shalhoub (Monk) and Patricia Heaton (Everyone Loves Raymond) to exercise their theatrical chops in an environment they'll no doubt find safe - at its best, Rebeck's writing is 30-minute comedy in Very-Special-Episode mode.
It's only in the character of Clea, the theatrical avatar for all armchair analysts of humankind played by Anna Camp, that the play explodes from the TV set and into the theater. We might think we've seen her type before - the corn-fed Ohio native now sleeping her way to the top of New York's social food chain - but Rebeck, Camp, and director Rebecca Taichman have made her into an irresistible fresh psychoanalyzing savant.
While out-of-work actor Charlie (Shalhoub), his harried, TV-producer wife Stella (Patricia Heaton), and their shared friend Lewis (Christopher Evan Welch) try to figure out where they belong in the grand scheme of personal and professional happiness, Clea is too busy embracing the life they're intentionally or unwittingly trying to escape. She sees life as an eternal party for which compromises need never be made and which is never more daunting in the face of a fresh pizza or a bottle of vodka; while the others struggle to find "meaning" in their lives, she's already found it.
This, combined with her stunning, curvaceous looks and her complete inability to communicate all but the surface-level components of her understanding, makes her the stereotypical object of all male desire. And from the moment Charlie and Lewis first meet her at a swank penthouse party full of the phonies they've come to detest, it's clear there's going to be some rivalry between them for the privilege of bedding this perfect 10 of looks and black-hole intelligence.
It's Charlie's burning desire for something more of life and work that captivates Clea more than Lewis's raging libido and metrosexual grace. "The entire fucking culture has devolved to such a point that what we want, what we desire isn't love passion or sex or money, it's meaningless," says Charlie not long before his and Clea's first sheet-hitting encounter. Rebeck then devotes the rest of the play to proving that even in such declarations of "substance" Charlie isn't much better than those he decries.
But her exploration of the drainlike spiral of Charlie's life never takes on any real meaning of its own. In dancing around various issues of marriage and long-term romantic expectations dissolving in the daylight, it begins to feel like a dime-a-dozen morality play peppered with revelations and inane plot twists designed to promote the illusion of significance without actually being significant themselves. (You'll never guess, for example, who Lewis's true love is, or what happens with the Asian baby Stella is planning to adopt.) That makes it almost impossible to take any of Rebeck's preachifying seriously.
Characters in this kind of play generally defy full-bodied characterization, and Shalhoub and Heaton are soundly defeated. They fall back on tweaked versions of their television personas - he's toned down Monk's obsessiveness a bit, she's enhanced Debra's wiry neuroticism - which aren't right for illuminating the darker corners of a loafing ex-TV star or his workaholic support system of a wife. (Derek McLane's scenery, which suggests an all-the-world's-a-soundstage sensibility, similarly misses the mark.) Welch, without established gimmicks, makes his character more believable, if too much a put-upon loser to entirely convince as a workable alternative to the play's demanding women.
But the real problem is that the other characters and performers can't match Clea and Camp in comic and cosmic intensity. By injecting Clea's heart with the blood of an indomitable, spiritual wanderer, Camp makes her the magical center of this play about (and, one suspects, for) aging party-hoppers. Even as Clea disrupts the others' lives, her belief in herself - as radiated through Camp's fearless performance - still makes us want to convert to her way of thinking. However insignificant this airheaded Aristotelian's personal crusade to understand the world and liberate its constricted inhabitants, it's still more than the others are doing.
This situation of one person orbited by three shiftless, self-important satellites is eerily reminiscent of Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed. That play, which is soon to wrap up its Broadway run, opened at Second Stage last year at this time with blistering work from Julie White as a potentially periphery character thrust to the forefront to support an otherwise shaky enterprise. Camp's portrait of Anna is one of the most deftly detailed seen Off-Broadway since White's, and its effects ripple nicely through this otherwise too-serene and too-shallow play. If both plays are arguing for an assault on meaninglessness, their playwrights need to lead the charge - right now, meaninglessness is winning.