The moral of this story? Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.
You've probably met someone like Charlie. He used to be somebody, now he's nobody, and he interprets his diminished status as evidence of the general decline of western civilization. Charlie's an actor who hasn't worked for 15 years: the wicked, wicked world of show business, which once embraced him, no longer seems to require someone of his integrity and stature. In fact, the entire modern world has become so shallow and corrupt that it can no longer appreciate the subtleties and complexities which are the very core of his being.
Despite the global nature of this diagnosis, however, Charlie is not really concerned with the state of the world. He could live quite happily in the world as it now exists if he could just get his career back on track. What Charlie wants above all things is to be offered a role appropriate to his character and station in life. When that offer arrives, and it is indeed both what he wished for and what he deserves, the shock of recognition is sufficient to finally slap some awareness into his self-deluded soul.
The instrument of Charlie's downfall and enlightenment is Clea, a curvaceous young lady whose charms are on full display in a series of little black dresses into which she seems to have been poured. Clea's Valley Girl speech patterns and apparent country-girl innocence ("I just got here, what, like six months ago?") belie her insatiable ambition and allow middle-aged men to delude themselves into thinking that she would find their sagging bodies attractive. Charlie's wife Stella, an attractive but clearly middle-aged woman who pays the bills by working at a job she doesn't particularly enjoy, sizes Clea up immediately: "She looks good in black and can't speak the English language. She'll do just fine in Manhattan."
Rebeck has referred to The Scene as a retelling of Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, but to me it seems more like an updated version of Death of a Salesman, in which the consequences of worshipping the Great American Dream of success are recast in a glitzier, more contemporary context. The fact that Rebeck's characters are wittier and dress better than Miller's is an added bonus that can be enjoyed without detracting from the gravity of her concerns. Certainly you don't have to be in show business to appreciate The Scene: the same issues of ambition, integrity and loyalty are common throughout modern society.
HotCity's production of The Scene, directed by Chuck Harper, captures both the surface glitter and the underlying seriousness of Rebeck's play. Peter Mayer as Charlie creates a character which is by turns exasperating, infuriating and heart-breaking. It's a tribute to his strength as an actor, as well as to Harper's direction, that Charlie remains the play's central focus and is not overshadowed by the much showier role of Clea.
Jennifer Nitzband gradually reveals the underlying complexities in the character of Clea, a role which seems at first glance to be one-dimensional. Her Clea initially deludes the audience, as well as Charlie, into dismissing her as a good-looking but dim young woman who exercises minimal judgment in her choice of sexual partners. When she allows a glimpse of what lies beneath her attractive surface, the effect is chilling.
Kate Frisina, as Charlie's wife Stella, adopts a more understated acting style and provides the play's moral center. She's a decent and hard-working woman who has always played by the rules, qualities which leave her able to witness but not intervene in the impending disaster which threatens to destroy her carefully constructed life. John Pierson also takes a lower-key approach to Lewis, best friend of Charlie and Stella: he can be as expressive listening to one of Charlie or Clea's monologues (and as self-centered characters they do have a tendency to go on a bit) as they are in delivering them.
All the action in The Scene takes place in various New York apartments, and Lauren Dusek's set design allows changes of location to be carried out quickly by rearranging furniture and changing wall decor. Costumes by Scott Breihan are simple yet effective, and are particularly good in indicating Charlie's estrangement by his slightly inappropriate clothing. If you've ever shown up at a party wearing khakis while everyone else is dressed entirely in black, you know exactly what I mean.
The Scene will be performed by HotCity Theatre at the ArtLoft Theatre, 1529 Washington Avenue in downtown St. Louis, through March 8. Ticket information is available from the company website at www.hotcitytheatre.org/ or from the box office at 314-289-4060.
Author: Theresa Rebeck
* Indicates member of Actors Equity Association