Theater Review: Fine way to make ‘The Scene’

It’s only a little over a month old, but 2008 already has been a good year in The City for plays about show business. Even as David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow” was getting its last performances at American Conservatory Theater over the weekend, Theresa Rebeck’s “The Scene” opened Saturday night in a winning West Coast premiere at San Francisco Playhouse.

Like Mamet’s play, Rebeck’s incisive 2006 comedy explores the dog-eat-dog world of the entertainment industry, where the road to success is paved with losers and the only way to get on top — and stay there — is by ingratiating yourself with the winners.

The play’s central character is Charlie (Aaron Davidman), an unemployed actor so hungry for the Big Time, you can practically see him salivating. He’s had a couple of hits, but now feels his chances slipping away; in high-stakes Manhattan, you’re only as good as your last triumph, and Charlie’s were too long ago to be of any real value.

It all startsat a party. Charlie and his friend Lewis (Howard Swain) meet at a trendy downtown loft where the movers and shakers are gathered. But instead of spending their time networking — i.e., sucking up to Nick, a TV writer whose pilot has been given the green light — the guys get sidetracked by Clea (Heather Gordon), a 20-something hottie from Ohio.

Lewis is instantly attracted — Clea’s blond and beautiful — but Charlie is repelled, especially when she describes a recent stop on her job search, a nasty encounter with a talk show booking agent who, it turns out, is Charlie’s wife Stella.

We next see Charlie, Lewis and Stella kicking back, bemoaning the industry that promotes bimbos like Clea. (“She looks good in black, and can’t speak the English language,” says Stella, “she’ll do fine in Manhattan.”)

But Charlie’s outrage is short-lived. Frustrated and demeaned by living on Stella’s income, he plunges into an affair with Clea, frying his friendship with Lewis and torpedoing his marriage. The outcome isn’t surprising — Clea, of course, is a player — but the beauty of “The Scene” is in the writing; Rebeck, who has worked in theater and TV, has a good ear for industry dialogue, and her script crackles with wit, insight and energy.

As staged by Glazer, the production is just as fast-paced as the world it portrays. Bill English’s sleek set, attractively lit by Michael Oesch, serves as the backdrop for four New York apartments.

The cast, costumed in high-tone wear by Jocelyn Leiser Herndon, is outstanding. Daphne Zuniga (of “Melrose Place” and “Spaceballs”), cast as Stella, was ill on opening night; Bay Area favorite Nancy Carlin stepped in and gave a terrific performance as the wounded wife (Zuniga and Carlin will alternate throughout the run). Gordon was sharp and sexy as the vacuous, predatory Clea. Swain was sympathetic as Lewis.

But it’s Davidman who makes “The Scene” something special. Desperatelyfunny in the show’s physical comedy, hopelessly pathetic as his dreams unravel, his Charlie gives the play an added dimension, one that resonates as a sober cautionary tale: those who get too close to the cutting edge run the risk of serious injury.

IF YOU GO

The Scene

Where: San Francisco Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; closes March 8

Tickets: $20 to $38

Call: (415) 677-9596 or www.ticketweb.com

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