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'Scenes From a Marriage' - Watching and Hearing a Couple's History Collide With Its Present

Dallas Roberts, Roslyn Ruff, Alex Hurt, Susannah Flood, Tina Benko, and Arliss Howard in Scenes From a Marriage
(©Jan Versweyveld)

Any relationship---platonic or romantic---is informed by its history regardless of what is happening in the present. Director Ivo von Hove, working with a script by Emily Mann, makes this reality blazingly and electrifyingly apparent in Scenes from a Marriage, which opened last night at New York Theatre Workshop.

Like Ingmar Bergman’s drama (which was first a six hour television mini-series and later a three hour theatrical film) on which the piece is based, the show focuses on Johan and Marianne, but unlike Bergman’s creation which had just two performers in the central roles, von Hove’s stage adaptation uses six, each paired to show the couple at one point in their marriage.

Audiences first meet lawyer Marianne and professor Johan in one of three scenes which are performed in tiny makeshift spaces in the New York Theatre Workshop’s capacious East Fourth Street home, which has been reconfigured into a vast circle that’s then been trisected to create these three distinct playing areas (Jan Versweyveld serves as the show’s production designer, and beyond the scenic concept, offers harsh, often distancing lighting). The sequences that are performed liked this comprise the first act of the show and depict the couple at three moments in their marriage, each in a different decade.

In one, the 20something Marianne and Johan cope with the question of abortion after she has announced she is expecting their third child. For the scene that features them in their thirties, the two fight about the rut into which they’ve fallen, both in terms of their obligations to their families and their sexual relationship. When theatergoers meet the oldest incarnation of the couple, Johan announces that he’s leaving Marianne; he’s fallen in love with a younger woman.

Because the actors are all performing these scenes concurrently in spaces that have not been sound-proofed, there is a kaleidoscope- or collage-like effect as they unfold. For instance, even as one is experiencing the middle-decade sequence, one can hear the younger incarnations fighting about the idea of an abortion. Similarly, there is a common central area, visible through glass which also allows theatergoers to peer into the other scenes, making it so that one can’t help but sense how the other events from the couple’s life together are affecting the present moment that they are seeing.

Once the first half of Scenes From a Marriage has concluded---and after a thirty-minute intermission in which the theater space is transformed into an open, sparsely furnished circular playing area---theatergoers watch the dissolution of the marriage. Marianne serves divorce papers on Johan. And though there’s reconcile-driven sex, the separation is ultimately formalized. But there are still ties between the two, and the play concludes with them reconnecting after they have both remarried.

For the first half of this portion of Scenes, all six performers battle, make love, and cajole one-another concurrently. As with act one, von Hove’s conceit makes the notion that the divorce is happening not just for the eldest pair, but also for the younger ones, tangible. In many regards, it’s like a high-adrenaline non-musical variation on Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Folleis, where audiences encounter younger and older incarnations of the show’s characters.

By the end of Scenes From a Marriage, though, von Hove only uses one pair of performers, Tina Benko and Arliss Howard, who play the pair in their forties. It’s an odd, and strangely unsatisfying, end to the show that has so masterfully allowed past and present to blur and inform one another. It’s hard not to wish that one were glimpsing the others on the peripheries of the space as Marianne reflects on marriage with her mother (a delicate performance from Mia Katigbak) or as Marianne and Johan, either out love or habit, share a tryst while their new spouses are away.

Throughout, Benko and Howard, along with Susannah Flood and Alex Hurt (the young couple) and Roslyn Ruff and Dallas Roberts (the middle couple), rise to the challenges---emotional and technical---of the production. In the tight spaces in which the first scenes of the production are offered, the actors’ concentration and commitment astonishes, particularly when they move to the aisles performing literally inches from audience members and as they contend with the cacophony coming from the other scenes.

Once the battle royale of the second act has begun, deftly orchestrated by von Hove, they spiral around the space with controlled abandon, often switching from the actor who has been their primary partner in the previous scenes to terrific (and telling) effect. Among the most effective throughout are Benko, who is perhaps most striking as her Marianne attempts to deter Johan from leaving by seducing him. Equally compelling is Hurt’s take on the youngest of the Johans. There’s something that simultaneously steely and delicate about his performance that makes it entirely understandable why Marianne was drawn to him.

Beyond Katigbak (who also plays one of Marianne’s clients), the show features three other performers. Erin Gann and Carmen Zilles prove terrific as an unhappily wed couple who are astonished by the seeming bliss that Marianne and Johan enjoy early on. And Emma Ramos plays one of Johan’s students (and lovers) with zinging intensity, both when she needles him about his poetry and later when she confronts him about what has gone wrong with their relationship.

---- Andy Propst

Scenes From a Marriage plays at New York Theatre Workshop (79 East Fourth Street). For more information and tickets, visit: nytw.org