You can’t accuse the Belgian director Ivo van Hove of picking fights with weaklings. His productions of Hedda Gabler, The Little Foxes, and A Streetcar Named Desire, all at New York Theatre Workshop, have sometimes sucker-punched those venerable plays but in the end did no harm. I realize that’s not a high bar to set, but I have not usually been a fan of van Hove’s garish intrusions, which too often literalized sexual and aggressive drives in ways that made nonsense of the repressive worlds from which they arose. So I thought I was in for more of the same when NYTW announced that it would be producing a version of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage that van Hove had conceived and directed for his company, Toneelgroep Amsterdam. All anyone was talking about was the staging — and perhaps a part of the director’s motivation for erecting elaborate superstructures around his favorite texts is to draw attention to his own creativity. But what of Bergman’s? Scenes From a Marriage, shown in six episodes on Sweden television in 1973 and then released as a shorter theatrical film, is a major statement from a major artist on a major human dilemma. Was it to be reduced to an avant-garde plaything, a lazy Susan of stage gimcrackery?
Yes and no.
When you arrive at NYTW, you receive a bracelet (why not a ring?) whose color determines the experience you will have. A third of the audience — the blue bracelets — is shown the three 30-minute scenes that constitute the first half of the production in chronological order, moving from one mini-theater to the next. The other two-thirds of the audience will see the same scenes but starting from different entry points in the story, at some point jumping back to the beginning. Though each mini-theater is walled-off and partly soundproofed, noises leak through anyway, especially when the performers in the other areas are screaming or door-slamming or simulating sex, or when the audience —very rarely — is laughing. (Once you’re in another scene it’s almost impossible to remember why anyone was ever laughing.) Some visual elements also leak from one part of the story to the others; a common room at the hub of the action has glass panes on all sides. Frequently you glimpse, or think you do, the other audiences, and the other actors, but you can’t always be sure that what you are seeing is not just a complicated reflection of your own.
There is more complexity than that — and I haven’t even discussed what happens after intermission. But the surprise is that within this Fabergé case of a concept van Hove has deposited a fairly faithful egg. The contours of the story, and all the dialogue, are completely Bergman’s. (Emily Mann is credited with the translation.) The original film’s intense realism is honored — perhaps in part because the setting is so modern to begin with it can barely be updated. Johan and Marianne, the pair whose marriage we will observe at various stages, are no less credible as contemporaries now than they would have been in 1973. When we meet them (well, when the blue-bracelets meet them), they are a successful and somewhat smug thirtyish “working couple” with two young daughters. The biggest crisis they seem to face is an unplanned pregnancy, the result of Marianne’s forgetting to pack her birth-control pills on a recent vacation. But over the course of the first three scenes, we watch as that “accident,” binding the wildness of sex and the prison of responsibility in one ripe metaphor, rips a hole in their marriage from which it never recovers.
Knowing how easily his staging might overwhelm what is after all a very intimate tale, van Hove has encouraged the utmost in naturalism from the three pairs of actors who play Johan and Marianne. He has restricted his theatrical palette within the triad of scenes to devices that would not stretch the abilities of a high-school drama club: a table, a bed, a telephone, a sandwich. Transitions are matter-of-fact. (“Okay, kids,” one of the actors advised the blue-bracelets after the first scene, “time to move to the next space.”) The lighting is simple and often operated directly by the cast. The acting, too, at least in some cases, has the earnest ring of a scene-study class. It’s highly emotional but seems barely directed. In a way this is welcome, as Bergman is addressing such large and harrowing themes. Indeed, unless you relish uncomfortable late-night discussions about the built-in and apparently immutable mismatch of men and women in long-term commitments, it’s not a good date play. For Bergman, the more a couple seems well suited, the less so they are; marriage is a source of lying because it is itself a lie.
The staging keeps letting the air out of this idea even as the text builds it up; your mind is taken elsewhere during pauses in dialogue, and it’s difficult to maintain emotional continuity as you’re traipsing around in search of new seats. But for those losses there are compensatory gains. The muffled sounds of the other scenes while you’re watching your own suggests the universality of the marriage trap: Everyone everywhere is facing it. The views through the interior windows can be like nightmare images: Seeing the older couple fighting while the younger couple makes hopeful decisions about their future — like the reverse view later — is terribly sad in a way no linear storytelling could produce. When time folds back on itself, the emotional wallop is more intense. And then, when you return to the theater after a 30-minute intermission (the whole evening runs about three and a half hours), the wallop is worse. The mini-stages have disappeared and, for the final three scenes, the entire audience watches from the periphery of one big room as all three Johans and all three Mariannes, sometimes separately and sometimes in chorus, go at it tooth and nail. This is a neat inversion of the first half’s framework: the characters now in triplicate and the setting singular. But it’s also “the big picture,” and it’s not pretty. The eruption of violence that is the climax of the movie is now more of melee, with the effect of the harrowing Bergman close-ups replicated by sheer proximity. You’re always right on top of at least one set of brawlers, and are thus more closely implicated in it.
“Our life is made up of little boxes,” Marianne complains, and even though she is talking about the small, discrete obligations that allow couples to avoid facing larger ones, it’s an apt mission statement for this clever and heartbreaking production. For once, van Hove has engaged in a fair fight with his source material and wrestled it to a draw.
* * *
Neil LaBute is not much sunnier than Bergman; his wars between the sexes almost never end well for either side. And though his latest play, The Money Shot, now being give a deluxe production by MCC Theatre, is labeled a comedy, it’s hardly that in any sense but the laughs. A Hollywood himbo, pushing 50, brings his 24-year-old ditz of a new wife (they met when he was shooting Pain Merchant 3: Hell Hath No Fury) to a dinner with the co-star of the new film he’s making, in order to discuss a “situation” that has arisen on the set. It seems that the Belgian director of this action epic wants to goose the material by shooting Steve (the himbo) and Karen (the co-star) having real sex on camera. Both Steve and Karen (whose career took a dive when she came out as a lesbian or a bisexual or something) are willing. So is Missy the ditz, if there’s “no anal” involved. The roadblock may be Karen’s partner, Bev, a fulltime lesbian who’s the only one of the quartet with an actual grasp on the real world. (Steve, a standard-issue LaBute alpha male, asserts that Belgium has broken off from Europe.) She’s horrified that Karen, with whom she is trying to have a child, would consider such a thing. But Karen hopes that the buzz around a mainstream movie containing actual sex might revive her career, which has lately taken a turn for documentary voice-overs and good works like her Agua for Africa campaign.
As a plot device this real-sex business is an absurd nonstarter, and LaBute seems to know it. He delays revealing the “situation” for almost half the play’s 100 minutes and then quickly skitters away from it once it’s been mined for a few “swallow or spit” jokes. The balance of the running time is devoted to the tedious and unconvincing enmity between piggish Steve and bullish Bev; the climax is a poorly staged wrestling match between them. Even the patented LaBute eleventh-hour switcheroo is a quick fizzle: a single pop of a firework.
Making fun of stupidity, especially the Hollywood variety, is not exactly mining a fresh vein. But that’s pretty much all The Money Shot has to offer:
STEVE: Yeah, lotta history in this town! That’s what I love about Hollywood — not like New York or places like that. London. I mean, this town is just so fucking steeped in history.
BEV: Uh-huh. It goes back literally dozens of years.
Perhaps that would even have been enough for a light comedy, but the director Terry Kinney, not doing his best work, seems to have decided that LaBute’s stab at breeziness needed very broad, almost semaphoric playing from the cast. Fred Weller as Steve and Elizabeth Reaser as Karen manage to make this work. (Reaser has a hilarious disowned-diva style, all hair spins and ripe moues.) But Callie Thorne doesn’t have enough to play with as Bev, and Gia Crovatin as Missy is left to mug as if playing Lucy Ricardo in the background. Still, she’s given the best bit, the re-creation of an interpretive dance she did in a high school production of The Crucible. “It’s about witches,” she explains. Unfortunately, that joke is even older than Hollywood.
Scenes From a Marriage is at New York Theatre Workshop through October 26.
The Money Shot is at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through October 19.