‘Scene Partners’ Review: Is She Brilliant? Demented? Both? (2024)

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The transcendent Dianne Wiest stars in an absurd yet poignant new play about a 75-year-old woman who sets out to be a star.

‘Scene Partners’ Review: Is She Brilliant? Demented? Both? (1)

Scene Partners

“Acting Like a Maniac” is not your typical acting class: You have to sign a personal injury waiver to join it. But then Meryl Kowalski, with that double whammy of a theatrical name, isn’t your typical student. Though 75, she’s no cute oldster; Hugo Lockerby, the guru-like teacher with a wandering accent, thinks she may even be a genius. Performing the autobiographical “blueprint” she’s been writing as an exercise, her fellow students are amazed and baffled by the tale (did she really get an agent at gunpoint?) but also the style. “Do you want it realism or should it be more like whoa,” one asks.

“Scene Partners,” by John J. Caswell Jr., with the transcendent Dianne Wiest as Meryl, is definitely more like whoa.

Twee, snarky, meta, manic, maddening and yet eventually poignant, the play is a moving target, its tone as hard to pin down as its facts. Take the setting, a maybe Hollywood in an iffy 1985. (Also, the Soviet Union and most of the 20th century.) In any case, it’s often impossible to tell whether what we’re watching is Meryl’s life, a film about her life, a dream about the film, a hallucination of the dream, or some other nesting doll of narration.

If the authorial bait-and-switch too often feels like throat-clearing, it does serve a purpose, building around the story a border that is also a blur. In Caswell’s world, as in Meryl’s, limits are always permeable.

“Scene Partners,” which opened on Wednesday at the Vineyard Theater in a top-drawer production directed by Rachel Chavkin, is part of a genre you might call the absurd picaresque. Meryl is a hardheaded Candide, a sharp-eyed Don Quixote. When we meet her just after the long longed-for death of her abusive husband, she is leaving Wisconsin for California so fast she doesn’t bother burying him. “Within the year I will rise to fame and fortune as an international film star,” she says in farewell to her drug addict daughter. Sure enough, she soon acquires not just her agent and acting coach, but also a contract to write the movie of her life.

What makes her life a fit subject for a movie, or even this play, is a useful question. Surely it’s not the banal details: the stepfather, the trauma and the mother who looked away are all tossed off too lightly to stick. Caswell doesn’t at first seem very interested in them except as opportunities to create fascinating verbal spirals, cross-references and death drops, like a game of biographical Chutes and Ladders.

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‘Scene Partners’ Review: Is She Brilliant? Demented? Both? (2024)
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