Theresa Rebeck's The Scene is a searing tragedy. The fact that the story, now playing at the Alley Theatre, is packaged up into a comedy only makes its darkness that much more frightening. Set in the New York City of today, a world bifurcated into a land of haves and have-nots, the tale focuses on a lonely narcissist named Charlie, an out-of-work actor whose life slips slowly over the edge as he grasps for a hand up in a world populated by selfish, frightened bastards.
Self-centered though he may be, Charlie (Jeffrey Bean) is an intensely interesting ne'er-do-well. Smart and angry, he's a master of language ready to spin his rage on the world at the least provocation. We first meet him at a fancy party where he's gone to schmooze and beg for a part in a new pilot. He's so mortified by his own deadbeat status, and by the entire scene, that he ends up drinking in a lonely spot of the high-rise with a buddy named Lewis (Liam Craig) and a very pretty, very silly young woman named Clea (Elizabeth Bunch). When she makes the terrible mistake of calling the beautiful view "surreal," Charlie pounces on her, ranting about what can and cannot be called surreal.
Turns out that Clea is not as silly as she at first appears. Though her endless conversation is heavily peppered with words such as "totally" and "like" and "vibe," she does not cower under Charlie's attack. Instead, she fights back, making her own bizarre sense in a world full of people making up the rules as they go. It's clear that Lewis finds the pretty girl fascinating. And though Charlie appears to be horrified by how "stupid" she is, few smart men can resist a beautiful woman who's up for a good verbal joust, even if her vocabulary sounds like it was ripped from MySpace.
Fast and tight, the play cuts to a scene in Charlie's apartment where his wife Stella (Elizabeth Rich), a producer for a talk show, is blabbing about her day. Her job, which she "hates," is to book ungrateful guests, then make contingency plans in the likely event that they don't show. One guest requests candy and an exercise machine for the hour and a half she'll be there. Stella waxes on in a fabulous spoken aria about the marvels of a being who eats candy while exercising. An organizational master who rules her office with a fist full of highlighters, Stella is, in many ways, Charlie's opposite. She takes care of everything while he's busy falling apart. Of course, she's no less self-centered than he is. Just like Charlie, she rants endlessly about herself, mostly her work, while her anxious husband tries to make love to her. She just pushes him away. Their friend Lewis is about to arrive.
Rebeck's dialogue is deliciously rich with wry observation about the current human condition. Everything from television to overeating to vapid sex gets a moment to shine in all its glorious hideousness. But these fabulous lines wouldn't be worth much if the cast weren't up to the script. Happily, director Jeremy B. Cohen has found four actors who all seem born for their parts. Anyone who's been to the Alley during the past year has seen some of Jeffrey Bean's terrific work, but all that came before this production pales in comparison with his ragingly brilliant Charlie. A dark star, he'll suck you into his vortex of hopelessness even as you're laughing out loud at the absurdity of it all. Bean is absolutely mesmerizing in this role. Likewise, Elizabeth Bunch makes a terrifically beautiful bitch. Complex, heartless and smart in spite of her juvenile relationship with the world, Bunch's Clea is wonderfully hateful.
The other two characters aren't on stage as much, but truly, the only bad thing about Rich is that we don't get to see more of her. Her Stella is powerful and deeply felt. And while Craig has the least talkative role as Lewis, his face is a wonder of expression.
The actors all come together under Cohen's high-voltage direction. He has ratcheted up the stakes and made this story about an out-of-work actor feel positively Greek in scale. The ending, in all its wondrous paradox, will leave you stunned.
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