Ostensibly a sharp-edged satiric portrait of a marriage ripped apart by infidelity, Theresa Rebeck's savvy if sometimes formulaic comedy, "The Scene," cuts a broader swath through layers of betrayal in contemporary show business.
Art Manke's smart, sexy staging for Santa Barbara's Ensemble Theatre Company pulls no punches with Rebeck's four-character immorality tale. Its focal point is Charlie (David Nevell) a bright, arrogant and naturally unemployed New York actor whose disdain for artistic compromise comes cheap -- he's been living off the income of his wife, Stella (Colette Kilroy), a talent booker for a TV talk show. The deceptions on which Charlie's comfortable cocoon is built unravel in the course of the play.
Detonating this downward spiral is Clea (Annie Abrams), a blond heat-seeking missile in a miniskirt and stilettos, whom Charlie and his best friend, Lewis (Daniel Blinkoff), first encounter on the balcony at a swank loft party. A recent arrival from Ohio, Clea is the embodiment of vapid stream-of-consciousness -- "I'm like from, you know, the middle of nowhere" -- hilariously rendered by Abrams in pitch-perfect bimbo-ese.
Beneath Clea's vacuous persona, however, is a master manipulator who parlays her physical assets first into a date with Lewis, and then into a torrid affair with Charlie. Her unsettling combination of inanity and truthfulness prompts Charlie to marvel, "How can you know so much and so little at the same time?"
With Stella's inevitable discovery of Charlie's philandering, the play seems poised to take a predictable turn, but Rebeck turns the tables with Charlie's unrepentant, searing dissection of Stella's artificial mask of competence and coherence. "Even your neurosis is perfect!" he screams in frustration. Not that it justifies his behavior, but there are enough unpleasant truths here to go around, and all four performers negotiate them masterfully.
Playwright Rebeck's experience writing for television cuts both ways here. At times the dialogue teeters on amusing but glib sitcomy banter. On the other hand, Rebeck knows her territory and charts its hypocrisies with the assurance of an insider. Charlie may be a self-absorbed jerk, but that doesn't make his insights any less valid, especially when he complains that our entire culture has devolved to the point that what we desire isn’t love or passion or sex or money -- it’s meaningless. "And that’s what I’m supposed to sell myself for," he acknowledges as he faces the necessity of trying to beg for a pilot role from a former schoolmate he despises.
Once one's own integrity is lost, the merciless economy of showbiz kicks in: the shallower the project, the more it's worth groveling for.
-- Philip Brandes
"The Scene," Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 21. $29-42. (805) 956-5400. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
Caption: David Nevell, Daniel Blinkoff and Annie Abrams in "The Scene." Credit: David Bazemore