*published 30 Sept 2014 on The EDGE
Ingmar Bergman made some deep, cutting and insightful movies. So whether you recall the movie,“Scenes From a Marriage” or not has no bearing on whether you are moved by this new, wild ride of a play conceived and directed by the marvelous Ivo Van Hove.
The movie portrayed one couple Johan and Marianne and we followed the vagaries and viciousness of their marriage. In the new imagining at The New York Theater Workshop on East Fourth Street there are three couples playing the original one. Yes it is complicated, but also infinitely intriguing, very much like relationships.
The small thrust theater has been divided into three distinct spaces, and the audience actually enters through a trio of doors depending on the color of your wristband. Once inside your theater, you begin to see the marriage of Johan and Marianne, either cast 1, 2 or 3. You may see them in any random order, I happened to see them 1, 2, 3 but a friend saw 3, I, 2.
This represents the couple at different stages of their lives and relationship. Happy and newly pregnant; a quarrelling and sexless marriage; and Johan leaving to marry a young student. My truncated telling condenses the facts into too tight a space because the fights, the unpeeling of the onion of the relationship are the crux of the play and of any long-term relationship. As an observer, the sadness and futility of the fights and clumsy attempts to rebuild love are heart breaking.
Although there are three different playing areas, they all share a central hub that serves as a cohesive backstage. This area has glass walls so from the get-go the audience observes the various couples exiting, gathering props or blowing off steam. All of this action is intended to be overheard in all three theaters, but to differing degrees. In fact, there is so much sound leakage that if most of the audience members didn’t inhabit New York City apartments, it might be very off putting.
However, the fretful conversation or sensuous groans so many native New Yorkers hear daily makes this layered sound juxtaposition an aural plus for those of us who delight in such confusion. Other audience members, overheard at the interval, were put off by hearing Leonard Cohen blaring twice from other rooms before actually experiencing it in the scene it was meant to illuminate.
The actors who played Johan and Marianne were as varied as the tumultuous roller coaster relationship they allow the audience voyeurs to watch. Alex Hurt and Susannah Flood were the first couple and the action and the interaction with another couple Peter, Erin Gann and Katrina played masterfully by Carmen Zilles, were by far the most compelling for this reviewer. The arch of their drama went from a perceived perfection of coupledom to ugly, angry fighting including an aborted pregnancy and the intendant despair of Marianne.
But in the next incarnation Johan 2, played by the excellent Dallas Roberts of late on “The Good Wife” and many other theatrical and televised works, and his Marianne (Roslyn Ruff) gave a great but sad portrayal of a marriage that had degraded further due to the constraints of children, work and the need to please everyone in their circle. Their intimacy had dwindled and died and so we are not surprised when the final troika of Johan and Marianne’s is preparing to divorce.
The third set of couples was the most problematic for me. Arliss Howard as the husband, throughout all the Sturm und Drang of packing and leaving, seemed never to embody the role. Rather he floated and stomped and never seemed present. His character was feckless and his wife seemed strong, yet enabling and it made for an uneasy partnering. It is difficult to parse whether one dislikes the actor or the act he is given, but in this case it might be both. In any event, the final couple parts and the curtain drops for intermission.
After a very welcome break, the entire work runs three hours plus, the audience returns and is reunited in the now open theater where the walls have all flown up and the seating is a zig-zag. They reunite on stage and proceed to repeat all their lines in a sort of cacophonic round. They then change partners quickly in reeling mode, each seamlessly moving to another husband or wife, sometimes in mid-sentence. This interaction illuminates both the similarity of every marital fight and the sameness and sharpness in our quotidian conversations. These wonderfully choreographed fights mark the high point of the play.
Finally, the couples drift off stage, clothing optional, with shoes, jeans and shirts dripping off the characters. The audience sits silently in the theater as the noisy copulating takes place in the wings. Everyone returns, redresses piece by piece and signs the divorce papers. Drama finished, correct?
Nope, it was time for a conversation with Marianne 3, Tina Benko and her mother Mia Katigbak, who had done well playing a client seeking a divorce in round two. Yes, these mother-daughter rapprochements are important, but I was exhausted from the therapeutic fighting, clanging symbols of unions gone wrong and sometimes, a play needs to end. After the mother daughter scene, with only one daughter doing the scene this time, Tina Benko and Arliss Howard reunite for yet another tryst.
Often when there is so much to take in, so many emotional highs and lows and a unique staging and casting concept, the producing team might opt for some simplification, the ‘less is more’ theory of stagecraft. The immersion and the privilege of watching wonderful acting, a great translation, by amazing Emily Mann, wonderful staging and ideas that are timeless were enough. “Scenes From A Marriage” is still an undertaking that will be seared into everyone who invests the time and emotion into watching it.
“Scenes From a Marriage” runs through Oct. 19 at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East Fourth Street, New York. For tickets or information, call 212-780-9037 or visit www.nytw.org