We rarely go to Off-Broadway plays, but since “Scene Partners” stars Dianne Wiest, whose work we’ve enjoyed for a long time (in five Woody Allen films, among others), we decided to give it a shot.
Wiest plays Meryl, a 75-year-old woman in 1985 Milwaukee whose abusive husband has just died. She sees this as a moment of liberation and an opportunity to finally pursue her dream of becoming a movie star. She picks up and sets out for Hollywood, where she stumbles upon an acting class. She joins and is immediately drawn into the world of the instructor and students — or are they drawn into her world? Are they even in the same world?
That’s part of the problem I had in watching “Scene Partners.” I was never sure if what we were seeing was all a figment of Meryl’s imagination, perhaps due to some kind of mental illness. No one says the word dementia, but the way she acts and speaks and the things that happen to and around her don’t seem tethered to reality. How else does she end up on a train with a conductor from the Soviet Union?
Wiest is fine in the role, as are a couple of the supporting players, but at least one of the others seemed like she’d stepped out of some not-very-good college production. The only one who’s at Wiest’s level is Johanna Day, who plays Meryl’s sister. Sadly, their encounters are short and infrequent.
Director Rachel Chavkin uses vertical panels moving across the stage to indicate scene changes. They also serve as the screen for several projected images, including video that gets chopped up by the edges of the panels in a really off-putting way. She also uses annoyingly bright lights pointing right at the audience — for instance, in scenes on the train, as if we couldn’t picture one without being blinded.
I found it agony to sit through the 100 minutes of “Scene Partners.” My wife initially agreed, but says it stayed with her for several days and, after further thought, changed her opinion to a positive review.
When we were there, the performance was preceded by the artistic director of the theatre letting us know that this was only the fourth preview and the script was still being modified by playwright John J. Caswell, Jr. — to the point where some of the actors (including Wiest) had to read their dialogue from pages of the script on stage. So, this is a work in progress. But I don’t know it’s going to get to the point where I’d view it differently.
Even aboard that train.