NY Theater Review By Brian Scott Lipton
In his landmark 1973 TV miniseries “Scenes From a Marriage,” the great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman delivered a devastating portrait of the ups and downs of a mismatched couple over the course of nearly five hours. The ever-provocative Dutch director Ivo Van Hove takes a different approach to the same story in his 3 ½-hour stage version, also called “Scenes From a Marriage,” now at New York Theatre Workshop, and the result is more intellectually stimulating yet less emotionally grueling.
Van Hove, who has brought his singular touch to everything from “The Little Foxes” to “A Streetcar Named Desire” in recent years, pulls off two major feats here. First, he completely reconfigures the NYTW space (with the help of designer Jan Versweyveld), initially dividing the theater into three separate rooms where groups of 60 theatergoers each watch a “scene” from Johan and Marianne’s union, ranging from a dinner party that goes from laughter to devastation, an argument about the couple falling into a routine, and their eventual break-up. (The contemporary translation, which gives us few clues about what country we are in or what time period the show takes place, is by Emily Mann.)
Depending on which room you start, results in which order you see these three pivotal points in their lives. For the show’s second half, everyone reunites in one larger space, sitting on the perimeter and watching the next five years in the couple’s lives.
The other innovation is that the couples are played by three radically different set of actors. The decidedly virile Alexander Hurt and the almost-fragile Susannah Flood are the youngest pair; the deeply disillusioned Dallas Roberts and the perpetually hurt and often angry Roslyn Ruff (who is African-American) are the middle pair; and the devastated-then-resigned-then-wiser Tina Benko (in the evening’s strongest performance) and the dissolute, uninvolved Arliss Howard are the oldest duo. While each pair’s perspective gives the audience a different dimension, this casting stunt also lessens the impact of watching a particular performer’s progress over the story’s two-decade span.
The sextet only interacts in the same space during the opening section of the second half (as the couple is simultaneously discussing their divorce papers and sexually reuniting), playing out the identical scene each in a slightly different physical and vocal fashion. (For example, at one point, Hurt enters from off-stage semi-naked, while Howard never even removes his vest).
Oddly, though, what turns out to be perhaps the most exciting and involving “scene,” is immediately followed by the two most boring ones in the whole enterprise: a long interchange between Marianne (played by Benko) and her mother (the fine Mia Katigbak) about her parents’ marriage, and an unconventional reconciliation between Marianne (Benko) and Joan (Howard), who are now happily married to other people. While these segments admittedly help the story come full circle, coming at the end of an already long evening, these scenes just make “Scenes From a Marriage” feel unnecessarily extended.
Still, “Scenes From a Marriage” is the kind of unconventional, daring theatrical experience we don’t see enough of in New York (outside of BAM and off-off-Broadway). So go Dutch.
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, (877) 986-7261