All too often, it seems, I condemn stage productions for resembling television soap operas. It's a boring tic I share with other theater reviewers; I'm sure many readers out there wish we would spend less time comparing plays to TV shows and more time thinking about the plays themselves. To be honest, I'm getting a bit tired of writing sentences like “The drama has the trappings of a daytime soap” and “the soap-opera-like plot of the play undermines the subtlety of its message.” If I'd wanted a career as a TV critic, I'd have gotten a job at Entertainment Weekly and decamped for Los Angeles long ago. Yet I've left the theater feeling like I've just sat through an episode of As The World Turns on enough occasions over the past few years to know that Soap Opera Syndrome (let's call it S.O.S. for short) is a pervasive problem on the contemporary stage. It makes us wonder why we bother slogging out in the rain to pay $40 to sit in an uncomfortable seat among a bunch of strangers when we could be lounging on the couch with friends in the comfort of our own homes, watching the box for free.
I bring this up now because I just experienced what would have been a captivating couple of hours at the theater, were it not for the terminal bout of S.O.S. that felled the second half of an otherwise witty, wry and smoothly staged play. Brooklyn-based playwright Theresa Rebeck's 2006 drama, The Scene, bears many of the traditional hallmarks of a daytime soap, with its two-dimensional characters, the prominent role of coincidence in shaping the plot, and its blandly upscale interior locales. Set in various glamorous New York lofts, The Scene takes as its departure point a chance meeting at a party between an out-of-work married actor, Charlie, and twentysomething bimbo Clea, freshly arrived from Ohio. He initially shows only contempt for her Barbie doll looks and inane talk. But following a second accidental encounter at his friend Lewis' apartment, Charlie finds himself unable to resist the siren's physical charms. When Charlie's career-driven wife, Stella, catches Charlie and Clea in a clinch, the suds spill over the edge of the bath. Temperatures rise, lust leads to betrayal, and scorned wives seek solace in old acquaintances. Will Charlie end up in the General Hospital? Or will Stella once again become his Guiding Light? Will Lewis come out of his shell to reveal his secret Passions? And will The Bold and the Beautiful Clea get her comeuppance in the end? Does anybody really care?
SF Playhouse's strong cast and production team helmed by director Amy Glazer works hard to mine Rebeck's text for something to underpin the superficial excesses embodied by the characters and their world. In the first half, they don't have to look far to find an intelligent, satirical core. In one of the funniest sections, Stella, played with alternate understated poise and crazed disbelief by Melrose Place alum Daphne Zuniga, rants about the inanities of her job as a celebrity booker on a television talk show. “I literally had to turn her fucking dressing room into a kind of physical representation of a complete psychotic break, lilies and bad chocolate and an exercise machine,” Stella raves about preparing for the arrival of the latest guest. “She was only supposed to be in there for an hour and a half, and she needed her own Stairmaster with the chocolate. What's the plan? To eat the mounds of chocolate while you're on the Stairmaster?” Aaron Davidman follows suit with his urbane, dry-as-an-antiperspirant-ad take on Charlie. The actor expertly sets up his character for a spectacular fall with his smirks of derision and cooler-than-thou Manhattanite demeanor. Packed into figure-caressing dresses that make us think that the name Clea can only be short for “cleavage,” Heather Gordon imbues the ditzy Ohio transplant with just enough idiot-savant charisma to counterbalance her pitch-perfect Alicia Silverstone-in-Clueless impersonation. Meanwhile, Howard Swain's soft-spoken, aging hippie Lewis spends so much time in the first half of the play listening sympathetically to the others' problems that we cannot help but look forward to the prospect of him coming into his own after the intermission.
Unfortunately, this never happens. Lewis' passivity permeates the second half of the play like the trendy-looking, revolving concrete facades of Bill English's stylish, purposefully emotionless sets. Charlie fares little better: He goes from being a hip loser to simply a loser. Clea remains a cliché throughout; her Victoria's Secret model figure, complete with lacy crimson panties, aids and abets her ambition to sleep her way to the top. Stella, on the other hand, embodies a stereotype of a different sort: She's the long-suffering, hard-working wife who, through her husband's actions, is transformed into a martyr. Try as they might, the actors and director fail to find a way around the hackneyed denouement of Rebeck's plot. Making a corny “wife-comes-back-from-the-office-early-to-find-her-husband-in-bed-with-the-blonde” scene work onstage is difficult enough without forcing the actors to deliver lines like “You just threw me away like it was nothing, Charlie!” with a straight face.
In addition to writing such theatrically nuanced stage plays as Omnium Gatherum (a Pulitzer finalist), View of the Dome, and The Butterfly Collection, Rebeck boasts a respected dual career as a TV writer for her contributions to the likes of N.Y.P.D. Blue and L.A. Law. As such, I'd like to think that she deliberately draws on the lexicon of daytime TV in The Scene for the purpose of dramatic metaphor. After all, the play's main themes —the superficiality of modern existence and our obsession with aspirational living over the real thing — criticize the very foundations upon which traditional soap operas are built; namely, viewers' desire to escape their humdrum lives and touch a televised fantasy world of beautiful heiresses arguing paternity rights with wealthy businessmen against a backdrop of warm mahogany paneling and potted yucca plants. SF Playhouse covered similar thematic territory in its 2004-2005 season with an engrossing revival of ART, Yasmina Reza's hit play about the pretentiousness of modern living. That production certainly wasn't hampered by S.O.S. Despite the company's brilliant casting and fluid staging, The Scene ends up looking more like a soap opera than behaving as a critique of one.