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Scenes From a Marriage

Ivo Van Hove brings his adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's film to the States.

Dallas Roberts, Alex Hurt, and Arliss Howard play Johan opposite Roslyn Ruff, Susannah Flood, and Tina Benko (all of whom play Marianne) in Emily Mann's English version of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage, directed by Ivo Van Hove, at New York Theatre Workshop.
(© Jan Versweyveld)

"There should be five-year contracts. Or an agreement that remains valid for one year that you can also terminate," opines Johan to his wife, Marianne. He's talking about marriage. "You and I are the exception to the rule," he hastens to add, preempting an inevitable fight. Ingmar Bergman's original 1973 television miniseries, Scenes From a Marriage, astutely captured the moments of truth and deception that decorate a wedded life. Fans of that film will find a faithful adaptation in Emily Mann's English translation, which is now making its U.S. debut at New York Theatre Workshop. But under the guidance of visionary Dutch director Ivo Van Hove, the piece reaches a distinctly ingenious fever pitch, illuminating the themes of the film in fresh and exciting ways.

The story revolves around the aforementioned well-to-do married couple of former radicals, now firmly ensconced in their bourgeois lifestyle. But is material comfort enough to make them happy? Van Hove has divided the stage into three playing spaces, each showcasing the couple in a different stage of their marriage. A young Johan (Alex Hurt) and Marianne (Susannah Flood) host the unhappily married Peter (Erin Gann) and Katrina (Carmen Zilles) in the world's most awkward dinner party. In the next room, a middle-aged Marianne (Roslyn Ruff) and Johan (Dallas Roberts) struggle with the ennui of a long-term relationship full of children and obligations. In the third space, an older Johan (Arliss Howard) confesses an affair and states his intention to leave Marianne (the delightfully deep-voiced Tina Benko).

Like clockwork, the scenes and the audiences rotate approximately every 30 minutes. Depending on the color of a wristband, you may start the play at the beginning, middle, or the end of the marriage. The whole ensemble does an incredible job of making their characterizations feel simultaneously distinct and connected, telling the story of how Marianne and Johan change over time, even as their marriage remains intact.

Picture windows in the paper-thin walls of Jan Versweyveld's labyrinthine set ensure that echoes and shadows of Mariannes and Johans from past and present bleed into one another, penetrating the scene directly in front of you. It's a voyeuristic feeling akin to listening to your neighbors fight in a compact New York City apartment building. In actuality, it serves as a reminder of the shared history between Marianne and Johan, the years of well-practiced tenderness and cruelty that color their interactions.

Sometimes the sights and sounds from the adjacent rooms serve to flavor the action on the nearest stage. "There's more to life than sex," middle-aged Marianne shouts as older Marianne desperately tries to initiate intercourse with her uninterested husband. Occasionally, the characters lock eyes with their alternate selves in a triangular central room. It's as if they're seeing a ghost, both familiar and alien.

The walls lift in the second half, and the three Johans and three Mariannes duke out the terms of their divorce in the round, all hands on deck. Van Hove has choreographed these scenes with balletic precision, the line readings of each actor accenting and reinforcing his or her two counterparts. It's like a well-rehearsed sextet. They perform a gorgeous fugue of marital dysfunction, with variations on lust, envy, disappointment, and even love. That last part seems the most elusive for the grasping characters onstage, and also the most difficult to define.

"There is no love in our marriage," says a clear-eyed Mrs. Jacobi (the disarmingly deadpan Mia Katigbak), a client of lawyer Marianne who is seeking a divorce. Yet when pressed to identify what love would look like, she cannot. It's as if everyone is expecting some awesome religious experience to shake off life's quotidian trappings. This mad pursuit of "love" has some very unfortunate results for all parties.

Of course, gone are the icy and formal Swedish manners of the film. Van Hove, Mann, and Versweyveld have firmly placed this story in modern America through diction and design. Johan reads poetry from his iPhone. Marianne raises her voice more than she did in 1973. Everyone dresses casually. The issues surrounding the maintenance of long-term relationships have not been engineered away in the last four decades.

You'll likely emerge from this probing stage adaptation examining your own relationships and choices. At 3 hours and 30 minutes, Scenes From a Marriage is a commitment, but like a fulfilling and mutually supportive relationship, it is one well-worth making.