By Tulis McCall
Watching “Scene Partners” by John J. Caswell, Jr. at the Vineyard Theatre felt like an out of body experience. I was watching something, but I had no idea what it was. It certainly was a fine bunch of actors starting with Dianne Wiest (Meryl Kowalski – yes there is meaning in the name), who reminds me more and more of Dame Judi Dench. There is a vibrancy to her presence and you know that under that sweet veneer there is plenty going on. The supporting cast (all of whom play multiple characters so well that at times you do a double-take to be certain it is the same person) Eric Berryman, Josh Hamilton, Carmen M. Herlihy and Kristen Sieh are each the perfect solid support for Wiest as she travels through what appears to be several time zones and possible countries. The final addition is Johanna Day who, as Meryl’s sister Charlize, provides a sweet touch of stability to Meryl’s journey. I would say life, but it is never clear if this story is about a life or a fantasy.
As the play opens Meryl is in the fresh chapter of being a widow – and quite happy to be so. She is now free and ready to chase her dream of becoming a movie star. At her age and in what seems to be her only clothing, a drab flowered dress and an old raincoat, she does not appear to be Hollywood material. None of this matters to Meryl, nor does she pay attention to her drug dependent daughter (Sieh) who pleads for Meryl to stay and continue to support her.
Upon arrival in Hollywood she gets an agent at gunpoint. Herman Wasserman (Hamilton) is impressed by her chutzpah as well as her knowledge of baseball – which is off the cuff and extensive. He sends her to an acting teacher Hugo Lockerby of Melbourne, Victoria (Hamilton with a decidedly British accent) who teaches a class called “Acting Like A Maniac”. The class has all the cliche’s that one would expect. Maniacism and devotion and a willingness to try whatever comes up. (How many of us remember being in a class like that???)
Withe Meryl’s arrival the intensity dials up a notch, and the class is instructed to make artwork out of their lives. Because Meryl has more mileage than the others combined she has more to share, which leads to producers sniffing around and her quest to be a film star is on the line.
When the dust settles, and Meryl is now famous, the entire world that we have watched is turned upside down, and because we have been dutifully following this band of fine actors we are tossed up into the air like fall leaves being heaved from a blanket.
In the penultimate scene the now director Lockerby says “Dreams often come true because, aside from hard work, someone agrees with you. They say yes, let’s do this together…. But for so many, that yes is a very rare thing indeed. We lose countless masters like this woman simply because they lacked a certain access at a certain time in history. But Meryl was always going to make it.”
More than character and story this seems to be a play of message. We are our own authors it tells us. In his program note Caswell writes, “We make things up in life. Otherwise there’d be nothing there.” In the end these characters seem to represent some elements rather than being three dimensional characters. Caswell made them up and they, in turn, make themselves into a story.
The writing here feels too clever by half. In spite of the refined direction by Rachel Chavkin and the aforementioned excellent performances all around, it is this writer’s opinion that without Dianne Wiest there would indeed be “nothing there.”
And who were the scene partners anyway? Was that us in the audience? Oiy….
SCENE PARTNERS written by John J. Caswell Jr., directed by Tony Award winner Rachel Chavkin.
WITH Dianne Wiest, Eric Berryman, Johanna Day, Josh Hamilton, Carmen M. Herlihy, Kristen Sieh
The design team for Scene Partners includes 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
Through December 17 at the Vineyard Theatre, TICKETS