“Scenes from a Marriage” at the New York Theatre Workshop (Closed Sunday October 26, 2014)

October 3, 2014 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
By Ingmar Bergman
English Version by Emily Mann
Conceived and Directed by Ivo Van Hove
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage” is the epic examination of not only why marriages disintegrate but whether marriages are sustainable as a cultural institution. Director Ivo Van Hove’s reimagining of Bergman’s original screenplay – as did the television miniseries, the feature length movie, and prior stage versions – raises what are the essential questions about marriage, truly enduring questions that examine the institution of marriage and its sustainability beyond the twenty-first century. For this reason, the “Scenes from a Marriage” currently running at the New York Theatre Workshop is a remarkable and important piece of theatre: it uses a unique convention to explore the phenomenon of marriage and its relevance to significant human interaction.

The audience listens in on the married couple – Marianne and Johan – in three scenes from their troubled marriage, each from a different time period all played out simultaneously on three different stages with one third of the audience in each and moving from one scene to another every forty minutes. After a thirty minute intermission, the audience returns to the theatre and together (the walls separating the previous playing spaces have been raised) experiences the cathartic resolution of the play. The three playing areas are connected by a hub which allows each audience to see offstage action and even the audience in another playing area. Audiences can hear dialogue from other scenes and the melt through resembles the surreal quality of memory. In the midst of the hub is a large green plant symbolizing perhaps pre-Fall humankind with all the scenes from the marriage playing just “east of Eden.”

To fully appreciate “Scenes from a Marriage,” think ‘turntable.’ Think not digital media (CDs or MP3 files) or ear buds stuffed in commuting ears. Think the turntable: that wonderfully soothing device one has to interact with to listen to music. The vinyl discs slide out of the cover in their paper sleeves and are gently placed on the turntable. The tone arm is lifted and the stylus placed precisely in the proper groove. And the magic begins. The reconfigured space at the NYTW is the turntable and the audience settles into each groove ad seriatim. Some begin at the beginning, others in “track” two or three. But it does not matter: what plays out is not present or past – just as memories when played out are not in chronological time.

What happens when there is no love in a marriage? The fallout from a loveless marriage affects more than the couple: the fallout is immeasurable. When, after a heated exchange, Marianne 1 (Susannah Flood) tosses her wine into Johan 1’s (Alex Hurt) face, the wine splashes all over several patrons in the theatre. Johan 1 offers napkins and apologizes directly to the audience members who are not simply observers but participants in this meltdown of a seemingly successful marriage. What might be “none of our business” plays out completely in stark real time. Someone, somewhere is watching, listening, waiting for the protagonists (Marianne, Johann, or one of the audience members) to miss a step, miss a beat, miss an opportunity to do something differently.

In a conversation with Marianne 2 (Roslyn Ruff), Johan 2 (Dallas Roberts) raises another enduring question: “Do you think things can be arranged so carefully that your life can get out of control without your knowing it? Without your even noticing?” And those significant questions continue to challenge the actors and the audience alike. Johan 3 (Arliss Howard) asks, “Do you think two people who live together can ever be honest with each other?” Peter (Erin Gann) asks Marianne 1 and Johan 1, “Is there anything worse than a husband and wife who hate each other?” And Marianne 1 asks Johan 1, “Do you think it’s possible two people can spend their entire lives together?” And at the beginning of the second act, when all three Mariannes and all three Johans convene to end their marriage, Marinaae 1,2,3 ask, “Do you think I went through all this pain, and finally started to be able to live my own life, just so I could turn around now and take care of you?”

The first part of the second act is much like a prelude and fugue with counterpoint: all six actors portraying Marianne and Johan in the scenes in the first act, talk at the same time, repeating the same conversations in counterpoint. Only after the divorce do Marianne 3 (Tina Benko) and Johan 3 – both now remarried – reappear, have an affair in their old house, and are finally able to speak the truth to one other. After twenty years they can finally be honest with one another. The second act lacks the power of the first and some of the first part of the second act is difficult to hear, but the final disintegration of a marriage is often more cacophonous than harmonious. The acting throughout is superb and the direction impeccable.

In the closing scene from this marriage, Johan and Marianne fall asleep together in a rare moment when both their new spouses are away. Johann admits to Marianne, “I am only speaking for myself. I think in my own selfish, imperfect way that I love you. And that you love me in your own emotional, imperfect way. We love each other… in an earthly, imperfect way.” Perhaps that imperfection is all fallen humankind can hope for.