Theresa Rebeck's barbed comedy The Scene, which opens HotCity Theatre Company's season, takes some broad swings at the ostensibly jaded, surreal, vituperative world of media celebrity. The nasty script pokes cruel fun at winners and losers, climbers-up and hangers-on. It strives to persuade us that the only true pleasure left in the world is trashing other people. But even after the stilettos have been plunged and the venom spit, it's unclear as to whether we've entered the satiric milieu of Molière or the soapy domain of One Life to Live.
Act One begins at a Manhattan power party. In order to avoid the degrading chore of having to shill for himself among the rich and famous, Charles (Peter Mayer), a once-popular but now-unemployed actor, is hiding out on the high-rise terrace with his pal Lewis (John Pierson). Without warning, Hurricane Clea (Jennifer Nitzband) sweeps into their world, eager to wreak untold havoc. Newly arrived from Ohio, this busty Buckeye is doing some networking of her own. She's still too green to realize that Charles and Lewis are in no position to help her. The cartoonish Clea is an easily excited, hypersensitive maze of narcissistic amorality. Her often incoherent blather is punctuated by question marks and exclamation points. Clea may well be, as Charles describes her, an imbecile. But she's an amusingly sexy imbecile, which cuts her a lot of slack.
It's no betrayal of the plot to reveal that in time the seemingly superior but spineless Charles will be seduced by this succubus. But in Act Two the levity vanishes. Knowing that his workaholic wife Stella (Kate Frisina) will be at the office booking guests for a TV talk show, Charles brings Clea home for an afternoon of uninhibited sex. At this point the viewer must make a choice: Is Charles a fool beyond our caring or merely a cog in an obviously contrived story line? Though the reason for Stella's premature return home is never explained, it's only a matter of time until we hear her inevitable footsteps.
What occurs next is not only the best-written scene in The Scene, it is the evening's sole truly original exchange. Stella is predictably stunned, Charles is predictably humiliated, but Clea — fasten your seat belt — is unashamedly brazen. She refuses to leave. For a few delirious minutes, anarchy reigns. Anything is possible; that's entertainment.
Alas, the play must proceed. (No way is the efficient author going to allow it to extend beyond two hours.) When Clea leaves Charles and Stella to themselves, she carries with her all hope for surprise. As directed by Chuck Harper, we end up with an evening of toe-the-line, by-the-book melodrama, which seems to be at odds with the script's satiric ambitions. Nor is the production served by a set that lacks any élan or even a sense of place.
Although Rebeck would have us believe that she knows whereof she writes — that The Scene is drawn on what she herself has seen at too many gatherings of the glitterati — a safer guess is that she spends most of her evenings at home studying old flicks on Turner Classic Movies. Her plot borrows liberally from The Blue Angel, Of Human Bondage, All About Eve and A Star Is Born. One of her key twists has been lifted directly from Dinner at Eight — the difference being that the doomed John Barrymore character is a lot more empathetic than the boorishly self-absorbed Charles.
Incredulously enough, the vixen Clea is a lot easier to — if not care about — at least be intrigued by: She is a 21st-century spinoff of Fanny Hill. Not only does Clea suck the very life out of Charles; rightly or wrongly she also sucks the energy from the play. Is that what is intended here? Hard to tell.
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