Playwright Theresa Rebeck puts her best foot forward in “The Scene,” the third offering in the 30th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre. “The Scene,” with compelling writing, terrific performances and sharp direction from Rebecca Bayla Taichman, is Rebeck’s powerful warning about the dangers of the cult of celebrity.
Her central idol worshipper, Charlie, moves through life in New York City moment to moment, scene to scene. His 15 minutes of fame as an actor — the moments when the city bowed to him — are over. Left in the wake, middle-aged Charlie (Stephen Barker Turner) wonders where his moment went.
Scenic designer Paul Owen created an impressive terrace that rises from the floor of the Bingham Theatre, where Charlie meets Clea, a young, impetuous and arrogant girl who “just minutes ago” arrived to the city from Ohio. Clea (Anna Camp) thrusts her hips in low-rise pants just enough to let her green thong peek out, an action that fascinates Charlie and his friend Lewis (an excellent David Wilson Barnes).
Charlie is both repulsed and mesmerized by her … like rubbernecking by a car wreck, as Clea flips her long blond hair and fills her speech with “likes” and “you knows.” When Clea complains about a job interview with a Nazi-priestess (Charlie’s wife Stella), he lets her continue to humiliate herself … or he tries. Clea is not ashamed of anything — an attitude that guides and protects her from a world bent on instant gratification.
The culmination of our society’s need for all pleasure with no guilt is exposed in a wonderful tirade from Stella (Carla Harting) over a quest to create fat-free foie gras. Harting, as Stella, displays her emotional range, and the result is remarkable as Harting pulls Stella through a job she hates and a journey to carve out a spot for herself in life.
With no job and a wife who is too “competent,” an emasculated Charlie is more obsessed with the “gods” who fill the billboards in Times Square than continuing with life with Stella. Charlie wants his moment back, and this disconnection from his wife drags Charlie closer to Clea, who indulges his need to feel god-like. Camp is wonderful as the seductive and conniving Clea.
Turner is superb as Charlie, especially when he raves about sucking up to a television producer to get a spot in a pilot. Turner hilariously wipes his butt with pages ripped from the pilot’s script while he fumes about the business. Turner is also fantastic when Charlie’s change from a struggling actor to a man untethered from reality is complete. In these moments, Charlie becomes so depraved that Rebeck creates the play’s second and most devastating car wreck.
Rebeck co-wrote the 2003 Humana Festival play, “Omnium-Gatherum,” which focused on a post-9/11 dinner party. “The Scene” sends a message that living an ordinary life is often the hardest thing to do and that people like Charlie who live and die by what the material world offers must learn this lesson the hard way.