“She can scatter a single idea into a thousand more, all equally as compelling as the first,” says a character not once, but twice in John J. Caswell Jr.’s Scene Partners. “Her imagination is limitless.” And it sounds an awful lot like the playwright composing his own ideal pull-quote, to be reproduced endlessly on marketing material, press releases, and grant applications. Unfortunately, I wasn’t equally compelled by every underdeveloped idea and dramatic non sequitur in this world premiere at Vineyard Theatre.
It’s true that (as the quote continues) the plot “shifts under your feet” in this play about a 75-year-old woman named Meryl Kowalski (Dianne Wiest) who moves to Hollywood in 1985 to pursue stardom. Characters disappear and reappear (sometimes in the same body, sometimes not), accents change without explanation, and all rules of time and physical space are malleable. But there is no underlying tension that forces you to sit up and pay attention — no feeling you’re about to grasp a great mystery just before it slips through your fingers. It’s less Mulholland Drive than it is politely listening to someone recount a strange dream and silently wondering when it will end.
We quickly tire of trying to discern whether Meryl is breaking open an industry obsessed with youth and beauty, or merely having a mental breakdown; although the wrinkled trench coat Wiest wears through much of the play, even during interior scenes, heavily suggests the latter (costumes by Brenda Abbandandolo). So do Leah Gelpe’s schizophrenic sound design and Alan C. Edwards’s lighting, which flashes directly at the audience during scene transitions, temporarily blinding us — those of us who still have our eyes open, that is. The evening I attended, a laugh line was punctuated by the tell-tale sound of an iPhone crashing to the floor after slipping from the hand of a drowsy patron. There was no laughter to cover it up.
Some blame can be attributed to director Rachel Chavkin’s lurching production, which relies heavily on moving screens (set by Riccardo Hernández) and video projections (David Bengali) to create the cinematic jumps and wild tonal shifts that Caswell’s script requires. But the beats are not distinctive enough, nor are the hodgepodge of genres delineated clearly enough to achieve the channel-surfing effect Scene Partners seems to be aiming for.
The supporting players come the closest to making this dreamscape a reality through committed and specific performances. Eric Berryman brings just the right combination of magic and sex to the role of a Soviet train conductor, who conducts Meryl from Wisconsin to LA. Carmen M. Herlihy is hilarious as an MRI technician who comes face to face with Meryl’s delusion. And Kristen Sieh brings genuine life-or-death stakes to the stage in her performance as Meryl’s layabout daughter, Flora. They all authentically play eager acting students under the tutelage of abusive Australian guru Hugo (Josh Hamilton, doing his best with a role that has the potential to be much funnier). And Johanna Day makes us feel the guilty obligation weighing on Meryl’s younger sister, Charlize, who becomes her caretaker.
The most disappointing aspect of Scene Partners is the fact that Wiest, who is typically excellent, shrinks from the emotional range Meryl requires. She’s the same ray of sunshine she was in Happy Days, which makes us root for the little old lady who plans to overthrow the Hollywood machine. But in some scenes Meryl seems to transform into Myra Breckinridge, like when she holds a powerful agent at gunpoint until he agrees to sign her. Wiest fails to convey the fabulous brutality of the moment, which calls for a Charles Busch type. The result is a static performance and a fuzzy character arc for a woman who comes, sees, and conquers — even if this is only true in her own mind. After 100 lethargic minutes of Scene Partners, it’s unlikely you’ll care one way or another.