Review: `The Scene’

Feb 03

Opened Feb. 2, 2008 at SF Playhouse

The Scene makes a scene at SF Playhouse
Three stars Scene to be seen

By all rights, opening night of SF Playhouse’s The Scene should have been a disaster.

The company, which has really come into its own during this, its fifth season, had every reason to believe The Scene would in fact be a scene. They had imported a celebrity star in Berkeley native Daphne Zuniga, of “Melrose Place” fame. And they had a sizzling play from hot playwright Theresa Rebeck, who made her Broadway debut last year in the well-received Mauritius.

Then reality struck. Just days before Saturday’s gala opening-night performance, Zuniga contracted laryngitis and was under doctor’s orders not to perform. She missed Friday’s preview and was MIA for opening night.

Enter Nancy Carlin to the rescue. The veteran Bay Area actor, whose husband, Howard Swain, is also in the Scene cast, was already on deck to fill in for a few performances later in the run when Zuniga had scheduling conflicts. But she was hardly ready to step into the role yet.

So, Saturday night, artistic director Bill English made a pre-show announcement about Zuniga’s indisposition and warned us that Carlin would be carrying her script.

Turns out, Carlin was wonderful in the role of Stella, a bright, funny TV talk show producer who has been turned hard and cynical by her job, New York and life in general.

The theater’s electrical system, on the other hand, was less prepared than Carlin. The theater was plunged into blackout twice during Act 2.

The company (under the intrepid stage management of Nicola Rossini) soldiered on, and it’s a good thing they did. In spite of the sick star and the wonky wiring, The Scene is a terrific production of a sparky play that in many ways generates its own electricity.

The two-hour play begins and ends at swanky Manhattan parties (the slick, swiftly changing set is by English). At the first one, friends Charlie (Aaron Davidman) and Lewis (Swain) encounter what Rebeck calls a “scene machine,” which is a young person who thrives on the upper-crust party circuit.

This person is in the form of Clea (Heather Gordon, who also happens to be Miss Marin County 2008 and will compete for the title of Miss California in June), who keeps reminding us that she’s fresh off the bus from Ohio. Clea is a near-perfect specimen: gorgeous with impeccably cut long blond hair, a figure that doesn’t quit in her tight clothes and a brain that is far craftier than she’d like most of her acquaintances to know.

The first party scene sets up the impending disaster as Clea insinuates herself into Lewis’ and then Charlie’s life. She really is a monster — “some kind of succubus” as one character describes her — because she’s capable of being all things to all people. She can be genuine and artificial simultaneously, dumb blond-ish one moment and whip-crack smart the next. She’ll use sex to get what she wants and then verbally lacerate anyone who suggests she’s doing just that.

I can’t comment on Zuniga’s well-rehearsed performance, obviously, but I will say that Carlin is perfectly cast as Stella, Charlie’s wife, who turns out to be far more interesting than her hard, ultra-competent exterior suggests. Even in thrust into performance unready, Carlin was able to convey Stella’s depths, her humor and her soul-shaking hurt.

Davidman’s Charlie takes the biggest journey of the play, going from frustrated unemployed actor to — well, to say more would be to spoil the play’s trajectory. But he’s an intelligent man who takes responsibility for his choices, and he even tries to hold on to his integrity in a world that has no value for nor need of anything smacking of soulfulness.

The role of Lewis is the least flashy in the show, but Swain imbues it with great humor and warmth. Lewis does nothing the whole play but tell the truth — even if that means admitting his shallowness. He’s a good man, and with Swain in the role, there’s no doubt of that.

The play, well directed by Amy Glazer, really does belong to Gordon’s Clea, a repulsive, irresistible dervish who makes The Scene sexy and scary and something to be seen and savored.

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