Thursday Theatre Review: The Scene

As a Torontonian, there's something odd about watching a show set in New York or Los Angeles. Once, this could be chalked up to a bad case of city envy. But it's 2007, and all the fixtures of these American megalopolises- money, a sprawling entertainement industry and an inescapable sense of ennui- can be found on the streets or our city. Still, a movie or play about our glitzy cousins to the south arouses complex feelings of inadequacy. It's like looking through a window into a world that is both vaguely recognizable and completely foreign.

The Pilot Group's production of The Scene is just such a window. It presents New York, and the entertainment business that inhabits it, as a kind of urban purgatory, a land imbued with the power to elevate its acolytes to incredible heights or grind them into dust. It's a complex, and in some ways confounding, play that features some stellar acting, biting humor, and a few 'adult situations'.

The play tells the story of Charlie, an out-of-work actor with a near-pathological distaste for the schmoozy, shallow world he inhabits. With the sudden arrival of Clea, a vapid and strangely articulate chanteuse from Ohio, his life spirals out of control. His downward has all the outward appearances of a mid-life crisis, but, as playwright Therese Rebeck frequently reminds us, his dissolution is more about the doomed search for happiness in a world that values vapor over substance and appearances over true creativity.

True, we've seen this story before: the virtuous artist rebels against the mindlessness of contemporary society, and the mindlessness ultimately obliterates him. It's a plot that crops up time and again in any number of forums. But Rebeck has done something interesting here, structuring her play as a kind of reverse Kierkegaard Narrative. Whereas Kierkegaard's heroes begin their journey's as aimless aesthetes engaged in a series of meaningless sexual trysts with beautiful women and finish when the finally make a committment to one special lady, The Scene actually goes in the opposite direction. Charlie runs backwards from a settled homelife, gradually disappearing into a kind of bohemian hell of poverty, alcoholism and empty (if noisy) sex.

Rebeck infuses her tale with some inventive language, creating some surprising and amusing turns of phrase. She is, however, a playwright in need of some editing. Her rapid fire dialogue is great, but she has an unfortunate tendency to over-indulge in monologue. I felt bad for actor Paul Eves, as he was frequently forced to grapple with huge, cumbersome blocks of text that added little to the action or to Charlie's character. We get it. Charlie doesn't like the entertainment industy. Let's move along. In fact, you often get the sense that Rebeck is so busy showing off her verbal pyrotechnics, she sometimes forgets about her characters altogether.

Fortunately, Rebeck's shortcomings as a playwright are largely obscured by the excellent cast. Eves does a fine job as Charlie, bringing warmth and depth to a character who could easily become a two-dimensional whiner. Ruth Marshall and Geoffrey Pounsett both put in nuanced performances as Charlie's wife and best friend, despite the fact that their characters are somewhat under-written. But this play turns crucially on Clea, the hyper-kinetic, social climbing succubus who throws Charlie into turmoil. Ieva Lucs is startling in the role, capturing Clea's frenetic worldview with an impressive performance. You're never quite sure if Clea is stupid, insane, or a brilliant manipulator. Lucs chooses to leave this question unanswered, holding these three interpretations in tension throughout the show. It's an excellent choice, one that makes for a dynamic portrayal.

Oh, and if you're the parent of a small child or hold fervent religious views, you should probably heed the warnings that come with this play. Profanity? Sexual content? And how.

The Scene is a provocative, interesting show that features four great performances. While you many have to stifle your Toronto-related neurosis, it's well worth the effort.
The Scene plays until December 22 at the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre. For tickets and info, call 416 368 3110.

Photo: Paul Eves as Charlie and Ieva Lucs as Clea.

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