Tony Shalhoub and Patricia Heaton in The Scene
(© Joan Marcus)
Tony Shalhoub and Patricia Heaton in The Scene
(© Joan Marcus)
An often funny play about deeply unhappy people, Theresa Rebeck's The Scene at Second Stage, chronicles the interrelated betrayals of four contemporary New Yorkers. The humor, for the most part, is a byproduct of recognition.

Early on, Rebeck makes fun of Clea (Anna Camp), a vapid and naïve young blonde who both attracts and repels a couple of sophisticated older men, Charlie and Lewis (Tony Shalhoub and Christopher Evan Welch) at a ritzy rooftop party. We laugh not because the lines are so witty, but rather because the lines are so comically awkward just as it would be at a party.

Moreover, Rebeck undercuts the sitcom aspects of what is essentially a "meet cute" beginning by letting us see the cruelty of the men and their unzipped hypocrisy. At bottom, we know that these two men and this girl are clearly going to have a history. Except it's a history that, in the end, seems forced upon these characters rather than created by them.

Rebeck is monumentally lucky to have Shalhoub doing the digging for her in the role of Charlie, a married man who has a good many admirable qualities, including a genuine love and passion for his wife (Patricia Heaton), a TV executive. However, Charlie is also a once in-demand actor who has hit the professional skids and is miserable at the prospect of having to suck up to an old friend/rival who is producing a dumb TV pilot that just might provide him with some much-needed work.

Need and pride collide when Charlie, compelled by his wife to meet with the producer, leaves the business luncheon feeling totally humiliated. In a blind rage, he goes straight to Lewis' apartment, where his best pal is having a drink with Clea. However, Charlie barely notices the girl as he launches into a volcanic telling of his tale of woe. In the hands of Shalhoub, it's a masterpiece of self-loathing; he is so electrifying that he lights up a lot of glorified clichés. No wonder then that Clea is drawn to his fire and promptly dismisses Lewis.

Most everything that happens from this point on is entirely predictable except for how far Charlie will fall. Rebeck's play resembles Josef von Sternberg's classic film The Blue Angel, but Clea is ultimately no Lola, luring her lover to destruction. She is actually less a siren than a woman who embodies the twisted morals of our time. Ultimately, Clea turns into a comic book caricature and loses what little humanity she had.

Director Rebecca Taichman provides the work with a sheen, aided by a stunning set design by Derek McLane that whisks you between three entirely different locations, seductive lighting design by Natasha Katz, and chic, eye-catching costumes by Jeff Mahshie.

The carefully calibrated histrionics by Shalhoub are a wonder to watch and Welch's sly performance continues to mark him as one of the theater's best young character actors. Camp, who is the only member of the cast who originated her role in this play at the Humana Festival, is mesmerizing to watch but the failure of her performance to transcend the role of the vamp is less her fault than Rebeck's. Ironically, the show's biggest marquee name, Heaton -- an Emmy Award winner for Everybody Loves Raymond -- has the least satisfyingly written role and manages to make little out of it.

In the end, The Scene is the sort of play that looks and acts as if it's something meaningful. But much of what you are responding to is not the writing, but merely theatrical craft of the highest order.