HERE'S THE THING: There's tear-jerky, emotionally manipulative drama, and there's good tear-jerky, emotionally manipulative drama. The kind seen on top-shelf TV shows like Mad Men and Big Love. Stuff that's so smart, so unrelentingly real, that you forget you're basically watching a fucking soap opera. Portland Playhouse's production of Theresa Rebeck's The Scene is like that. So much so that, at times, it feels like you're watching the pilot of some new flagship drama on HBO or AMC.
Charlie (Leif Norby) is a thirtysomething actor past his prime and on the brink of an old-skool midlife crisis. Frustrated by the endless phoniness of his chosen profession, and by his petulant, workaholic wife (Laura Faye Smith), Charlie finds himself infatuated with Clea (Nikki Weaver), a chaotic-neutral party girl who makes him feel... just... like... alive, you know?! Throw in a nice-guy best friend (Ty Hewitt) who's secretly in love with Charlie's wife, and... well, you can see where this is going. Relationship drama among intellectuals in the art scene. Cue that weepy song from the Six Feet Under finale.
It's a familiar story, sure—ever since American Beauty, the semi-sympathetic midlife crisis has practically become its own genre−but Rebeck has a virtuoso talent for crafting believable, compelling characters, and there's actually very little that feels trite here. Tamara Fisch's direction is thoughtful and inventive, with well-chosen music cues and lighting effects nicely supplementing the minimalistic set, and the intimacy of the space itself helps create a deep, immersive experience.
The cast is extraordinary. Put simply, The Scene features some of the best local performances you're likely to see all year, particularly Leif Norby's volcanic and vulnerable Charlie. Nikki Weaver is fearless and endlessly surprising, and Laura Faye Smith will break your goddamn heart. Ty Hewitt does a great job, too, but if the play has one major flaw, it's that his character, Lewis, just isn't all that interesting. But I would lay that on Rebeck.
The Scene is brutal and intense, but it's also smart, sexy, and surprisingly funny. If it were an HBO drama, I probably would have set up my TiVo Season Pass before the credits rolled. As is, it stands as a nice example of what straight theater can and should be.