The Scene

    At the Writers Nichols Theatre

                            By Dan Zeff


Glencoe – “The Scene” at the Writers Theatre stakes out a claim as an edgy, “now” tale of sex and marriage in the big city (specifically New York City today). The play revolves around a destructive young woman named Clea who breaks up a marriage for no specific reason, except that she can. “The Scene” has been around for 10 years and gathered some laudable reviews nationally. But the Writers Theatre can’t surmount serious miscasting in the role of the sexually marauding woman and that sinks the evening, in spite of a superb performance by the woman’s male victim.

          “The Scene” opens at one of those flashy cocktail parties that apparently play a major role in the social lives of hip denizens of the Big Apple. Charlie is a 40-something actor having trouble sustaining his career in the competitive New York theater scene. At the party, he encounters the brash young Clea, one of those young people who use “totally” and “like” relentlessly in their conversations. Clea says silly, pompous things that initially make her a figure of fun. Still, she talks a good game and she is cute, especially in a snug black dress, so attention will be paid by men on the prowl for some pick-up sex.

          Clea strikes up a conversation with Charlie, who is both amused and annoyed by the woman’s pretentious line of chat, but he is going through a tough midlife crisis, making him vulnerable to the manipulations of a woman like Clea with her erotic allure. In short order Clea injects herself between Charlie and Stella, his wife. There already are relationship difficulties there because Stella is the current sole breadwinner in the marriage, working on a television talk show and Charlie’s pride is wounded. The couple has no children and is in the process of adopting a baby from China.

          The fourth character in the play is Lewis, Charlie’s mild mannered and unmarried friend. The casting is a model of diversity. Clea is played by an Asian American, Stella by a Hispanic, Lewis by an African American, and Charlie by a WASP. Nothing in the script suggests that ethnicity or race play any part in the combustible relationships created by Theresa Rebeck’s script, so director Kimberly Senior must have chosen the performers based on their perceived rightness for the roles. The selections of Mark Montgomery as Charlie and La Shawn Banks as Lewis are impeccable. The women who play Clea and Stella, not so much, and that undermines the play.

                                                                   Photo Credit:Liz Lauren

Clea may be full of herself, but she knows how to push the right buttons to get what she wants. She is brazen, crafty, and both amoral and immoral—the poster woman for a female on the make. The character can be absurd but she is also fascinating and ultimately chilling when her malignant side surfaces at the end of the evening. The performance at the Writers Theatre doesn’t have enough emotional and psychological layers. Clea ensnares Charlie, but the audience is forced to credit his gullibility as much as Clea’s supposedly irresistible wiles.

          “The Scene” should be Clea’s show but she doesn’t dominate at the Writers. The narrative’s center of gravity shifts to Charlie, a less complicated character but one who takes the stage by the scruff of its dramatic neck, thanks to one of those engrossing acting jobs we have come to expect from Mark Montgomery. He is terrific in his delineation of a man in an irreversible downward spiral, raging around the stage verbally attacking everyone around him as well as the sorry state of television as an art form, for his angst. In reality, the man is just weak and ripe for the picking by a calculating woman who knows how to use sex as a lure and a weapon.

The character of Clea is reminiscent of the temptress in “Venus in Fur” at the Goodman Theatre three years ago in her use of sexual manipulation to ensnare and ruin a man initially her superior in sexual power games. Amanda Drinkall from that production would have made the kind of Clea that could have elevated the “The Scene” to the proper emotional heat.

La Shawn Banks is excellent as Lewis, but he is primarily a spear-carrier in the plot, the typical nice guy best friend to the hero. The Stella actress doesn’t sufficiently sell her hurt and outrage as Charlie’s betrayed wife, again leaving Montgomery to fill in the dramatic spaces in their conflicts after Stella walks in on Charlie and Clea en flagrante.

                                                Photo Credit: Liz Laauren

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There isn’t anything new in Rebeck’s femme-fatale storyline but she does snap off some sharp bitchy lines. An essay in the show’s playbill discusses the play in terms of gender equality and male entitlement in the workplace, but those worthy themes were explored only in passing in the play. For me, the play portrays Charlie afflicted with a severe case of male menopause that disarms his defenses against an enticing but crafty and malicious woman.

The set by Brian Sidney Bembridge is dominated by a large clear glass and steel floor that may represent the slick and soulless lifestyles the play presents, abetted by Nan Zabriskie’s costumes, though I found Clea’s black cocktail dress unflattering. Sarah Hughey is the lighting designer and Richard Woodbury is in charge of the sound and original music.

I would love to see a production of “The Scene:” with more appropriately female acting components. Still, Montgomery’s performance is worth the price of admission and some patrons may not be as resistant to the production’s Clea as I was. Our theater does not lack for plays in which sex rears its ugly head to bring down a flawed but basically decent man. “The Scene” is embedded in that tradition and has its entertaining moments but with more pinpoint casting it could be better.

 -    The show gets a rating of 2½ stars.  -

“The Scene”” runs through April 2 at the Writers Theatre Nichols Theater, 325 Tudor Court. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m., with selected Wednesday matinees. Tickets are $35 to $80. Call 847 242 6000 or visit

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