The Scene is a story of seduction, so it’s appropriate that Theresa Rebeck’s dark comedy has lured two major Southern California theater artists to Santa Barbara. The Ensemble Theatre Company production, which opens Thursday night in the Alhecama Theatre, marks the local debut of director Art Manke, and the return of versatile character actor David Nevell.
Manke cofounded the classically oriented Glendale-based troupe A Noise Within and served as its first artistic director. Since leaving the company, he has been a much-in-demand director, working at such prestigious venues as South Coast Repertory, Pasadena Playhouse, and the Denver Center Theatre.
Manke also does some television directing “to pay for my theater habit”; his most recent gig was an episode of Hannah Montana. (He kindly requests you do not ask him for help obtaining Miley Cyrus concert tickets.)
Nevell was part of the resident company at PCPA Theaterfest from 1997 through 2000, appearing in countless productions. (He returned as a guest artist for the 2004 staging of Light Up the Sky.) He has fond memories of his time there, calling it “a period of growth for me, particularly in musical theater. It cured me of my fear of singing.”
After leaving Santa Maria, Nevell lived in New York City for three years (he watched in horror from his terrace as the World Trade Center towers crumbled and fell) before returning to Southern California. He is currently on the faculty of Cal State Fullerton, where he teaches voice and movement to actors.
Nevell appreciates the solid financial foundation his teaching job provides, but what really excites him about academia is the fact that he has online access to the Oxford English Dictionary. The fact he considers that the job’s greatest perk gives you some idea of how much he loves language, and why he is entranced by Rebeck’s precise writing.
“She really captures the way people talk,” he said. “She conveys the fact that language has devolved to such an extent that people don’t know how to communicate with one another.”
“There’s a real economy to her writing,” added Manke. “It’s very clear, precise, bold. Scenes start with a bang and end with a bang.”
Rebeck has been writing for both the stage and television for two decades, contributing scripts to such shows as L.A. Law and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. As a playwright, she gained some notice for her post-9/11 drama Omnium Gatherum, which Santa Barbara City College Theatre Group staged last spring. She made her Broadway debut in 2007 with the drama Mauritius, a mystery set in the world of stamp collecting.
The Scene premiered at the prestigious Humana Festival in Louisville in 2006, and made its off-Broadway debut the following year. The “sharp-witted, sharp-elbowed comedy,” in the words of New York Times critic Charles Isherwood, concerns an unemployed actor whose life is turned upside down by an ambitious and seductive young woman.
“The Scene is a cautionary tale,” said Manke. “In a way, it’s a parable. Clea [played by Annie Abrams] is a demon creature who enters the lives of the other characters, and threatens to destroy them.”
If that sounds dark, it is, in an amusing way. “The first act is hilarious-full of the biting wit Rebeck is so good at,” Nevell said. “But in great comedy there is tragedy, and vice versa.”
“Just as the characters are seduced by Clea, Rebeck seduces the audience with her humor,” agreed Manke. “At the same time we’re laughing, we’re getting kicked in the ribs. It’s a black comedy, so you have to serve both masters: the darkness and the comedy.”
The play is set in a very specific milieu: The characters are all part of the elite New York City cultural scene. While Nevell feels well-prepared for the role, he insists the show’s themes extend far beyond the insular world of show business.
“At its core, it’s about a man who wants to live in an alternate universe,” he said. “He can’t accept the real world, and, as a result, he alienates himself from everyone around him.”
“It could really take place anywhere,” added Manke. “The characters could be doctors or lawyers. What’s important are the interpersonal relationships.”
Indeed, the concept of being seduced by something or someone who promises instant gratification is hardly limited to the theater world. Rebeck’s play is a timeless reminder that when temptation comes our way, it’s wise to be wary.
The Scene begins performances on Thursday, May 28, and continues playing Tuesday through Sunday at Alhecama Theatre (914 Santa Barbara St.) through Sunday, June 21. For tickets and information, visit ensembletheatre.com or call 965-5400.