‘Scene Partners’ Off Broadway Review: Dianne Wiest Plays a Movie Star Named Meryl

This playwright is big on concept. Earlier this year, John J. Caswell Jr. gave us a play, “Wet Brain,” that took us inside the fevered mind of an alcoholic. In his new play, “Scene Partners,” a 75-year-old widow from the Midwest takes off for Hollywood to become a movie star even before her dead (and very hateful) husband has been buried. The big concept is her name, Meryl Kowalski.

As soon as this Meryl takes her first acting class somewhere on La Brea in Los Angeles, the septuagenarian is informed that the name Meryl has already been taken by another multi-Oscar-winning actor. It’s then revealed that this Meryl’s dead husband was named Stanley Kowalski, and he made the character created by Tennessee Williams look like a really nice guy.

“Scene Partners” opened Wednesday at the Vineyard Theatre, and Dianne Wiest fits the role of Meryl Kowalski like a snug strait jacket. Discombobulation, to put it mildly, is a state of mind that Wiest conveys with enormous ease. Her feet, as well her mind, often seem to be gliding just above the surface of the earth where everybody else walks.

Even before Meryl Kowalski arrives at a medical doctor’s office, Rachel Chavkin’s direction has loaded Riccardo Hernandez’s sliding-door set with enough vintage movie imagery (great projections by David Bengali) to decorate all the memorabilia stores off Hollywood and Vine. Mrs. Kowalski clearly imbibed everything from “Gone With the Wind” to “Doctor Zhivago” at an impressionable age and never outgrew that calamity. Now she is overwhelmed and controlled by those movies.

For much of its 105 minutes, the one-act “Scene Partners” can seem whimsical to the point of downright fey until the appearance of Meryl’s half-sister, Charlize, played by Johanna Day, who has a knack of grounding any scene in which she appears. Day provides the solid flooring to the intoxicating vapors of Wiest’s performance that both invades, escapes and ultimately rejects Charlize’s world.

The pop-culture megalomania of the name Meryl Kowalski has its inception in a very dark place that Caswell Jr. reveals both to drive his narrative forward and take it to a wonderfully comic finale: In a pre-taped video, Wiest’s Meryl finds herself interviewed by a talk-show host (Kristen Sien, being amusingly unctuous), and is soon rewarded with lavish praise from her movie director (Josh Hamilton, being amusingly self-important).

Eric Berryman and Carmen M. Herlihy play other figments (or not) of Meryl Kowalski’s fertile imagination. In Caswell Jr.’s play, all the world is a stage in your mind.

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