In actors’ parlance, a scene partner is someone you work with as you prepare to present your work in an acting class.
At the Vineyard Theatre, John J. Caswell, Jr.’s Scene Partners has a cast of five fine actors, an avalanche of scene partners—most play several roles—to help the inimitable Dianne Wiest as Meryl Kowalski study the jagged pieces of a life plagued by abuse and disappointment
It takes an artist of the stature and extraordinary talent of Wiest to keep Caswell’s fragmented play from flying off in all directions as it veers from reality to fantasy and from flashback to the present. Or, is the entire plot, which takes an embittered 75-year-old widow from the depths of the Mid-west to the depths of Hollywood, just a figment of her yearning imagination?
The tale of Meryl Kowalski (both names exuding meaning) is of the oft-told a-star-is-born genre: an unknown hopeful, through lucky breaks and gumption, manages to become a movie star. Sounds simple, right? Not here. Caswell (Wet Brain and Man Cave) will not allow her story to be told in a linear fashion.
His twisting psychological take on what might have been just a long cliché, takes advantage of Wiest’s superb talents to combine a showbiz tale with a deeply disturbing psychological narrative. Though it ostensibly takes place in Los Angeles, it ambles into Russia, the Midwest and other locales that might only live in Meryl’s addled but agile mind.
It is 1985. Meryl Kowalski, widowed and freed from an abusive marriage, decides to leave her drug-dependent adult daughter, Flora (Kristen Sieh, great in this role and others). She doesn’t even take the time to bury her husband. Her train trip—train trip!—to L.A. is as fantastical as her meeting with an agent (Josh Hamilton) who signs her because she threatens him with a gun. (Actors take note!)
She winds up living with her half-sister Charlize (Johanna Day, wonderful) who was fathered by Meryl’s step-father, yet another abusive figure in her life, abuse for which Meryl holds Charlize responsible. Their relationship is testy, but loving.
She joins a rather outré acting class led by faux Australian Hugo Lockerby (Hamilton, again) whose demands on his students approach psychological torture.
For some reason, poor, bedraggled Meryl (her dreary costume and all the other more colorful ones, by Brenda Abbandandolo) piques Hugo’s need to sculpt an actor. He decides that Meryl’s story is worth filming with her as the star, playing herself.
On this rough path to stardom, Meryl’s life haunts and freaks her out: her step-father who raped her; her husband who beat her; her drug-addled daughter; the rupture with her half-sister; her Technicolor dreams of stardom—all appear as fleeting images like ghosts or dreams, never quite sure if Meryl has a grasp on reality, helped by the extraordinary lighting by Alan C. Edwards, the sound design by Leah Gelpe and the dreamy video and projection designs by David Bengali.
All the actors—Carmen M. Herlihy, Eric Berryman, Day, Hamilton and Sieh—showed great skill, some in multiple parts (helped by Abbandandolo’s costumes and Leah Loukas’s hair, wigs and makeup).
Rachel Chavkin (Hadestown, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812) has worked her magic again, molding her performers and creative team into an exciting—if occasionally confusing—whole.
I first fell in love with Dianne Wiest in Tina Howe’s The Art of Dining at the Public Theater in 1979. Scene Partners is just additional proof that that love was justified.
Scene Partners (through December 17, 2023)
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-353-0303 or visit http://www.vineyardtheatre.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission