It seems like yesterday that Dianne Wiest was buried to her waist and clutching an umbrella in Brooklyn. In fact, it was more than six years ago, but Wiest’s performance in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days was a perfect collision of actor and material. Her light voice can be a contrast to something sadder under the surface or it can explode into something unexpectedly fierce and intimidating. There’s no one like her.
So how exciting to have her back on stage in New York, this time in a new play. John J. Caswell, Jr.’s Scene Partners opens at the Vineyard not just with Wiest, but with a must-see supporting cast and superstar director Rachel Chavkin at the helm. How disappointing, then, that the play prevents any of them from making a memorable impression.
Caswell’s play is collage-like in its structure, which is then amplified by scenic designer Riccardo Hernández’s sliding screens. These screens swoop in to mark the end of scenes like a curtain coming down or to create architectural shapes as the play jumps through multiple locations. Video and projection designer David Bengali fills them with images of the cast, particularly Wiest’s Oscar-winning visage. The play’s first moments are some of its most captivating. Wiest’s face, in a Depression-era hat, fills the screens in closeup. She is riveting and charming, as in all of her film work. But then the play begins.
By nature, Wiest’s Meryl is forced to keep everything internalized. She was in an abusive marriage for many years and now that he has died, she is free to finally explore her secret desire: to become an actress. But her husband’s abuse is not the end of Meryl’s buried traumas. When some of these are revealed in a reading of an autobiographical screenplay Meryl has written, Wiest offers a glimpse of that electric magnetism she’s known for, but that’s only possible because in that one scene, the character slightly opens her padlocked self.
It happens again, right at the end, and it’s mostly wordless. But these two moments do not a full performance make. Wiest and Chavkin seem unsure what to do with the wild swings in Caswell’s script. Sometimes scenes are arch detective noir, sometimes they’re kitchen sink drama, and it’s not really clear why or when the shifts happen. The detective noir is a fantasy Meryl is enacting, but it doesn’t extend to all of the characters and isn’t carried through to a satisfying conclusion. When Meryl is allowed to speak to other characters, like the fantastic Johanna Day as her sister or Kristen Sieh as her daughter, it feels like a completely different play, and often one you’d rather be watching.
But even Day and Sieh are lost in the play. Day’s beleaguered Charlize wants to help her older sister, but there’s a long history of trust issues between them. Day is warm and feels like Wiest’s sister, but the dynamic of their relationship is one-sided; it’s only through Meryl that we see Charlize. Sieh plays a number of small characters, including Meryl’s daughter, Pauline. We know (from Meryl) that Pauline is a drug-addict, a thief, and entirely selfish, one other thing that Meryl is escaping in order to pursue her dream. Pauline is more an idea than a person.
On the one hand, Caswell’s sense of theatricality has to be applauded. No one is making plays like this or his Wet Brain, at least at the major off-Broadway theatres. And you’ve gotta hand it to Wiest for taking a chance on this new work. But the pieces of his collage don’t come together. The adhesive melts under the theatre’s lights and the cast is left with the droopy paper.