February 9, 2022

Married, Veteran Actors Bicker on Opening Night in “Scenery”; Ed Dixon’s World-Weary Comedy is Presented at Kelsey Theatre

“SCENERY”: Performances are underway for “Scenery.” Presented by Maurer Productions OnStage, and directed by Judi Parrish, the play runs through February 13 at Kelsey Theatre. Above: married, veteran actors Richard Crain (Thom Carroll, left) and Marion Crain (Laurie Hardy) bicker, as an opening night finds them wearily discussing their life in the theater, and as a couple. (Photo by John M. Maurer)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Early in Scenery, veteran actor Marion Crain complains about being given new lines on opening night. Her husband, costar Richard Crain, tartly replies, “They gave us new lines last week; you just didn’t learn them.” Marion retorts, “I was busy learning the old ones.”

This exchange encapsulates the themes and content of Scenery, which is being presented at Kelsey Theatre. Playwright Ed Dixon scripts flippant conversations (which include adult humor and strong language) that achingly probe anxieties about time passing by and leaving us behind — specifically, as we grow older.

In addition to his work as a playwright, Dixon is a seasoned composer and award-winning Broadway and concert performer. His voice is heard on several recordings (including the Kennedy Center premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, conducted by the composer). As such, Dixon’s own career offers him ample material for a play about longtime actors.

The play received its premiere from New York’s Montauk Theatre Company in September 2001 (five months after the Broadway opening of another comedy about theater and its practitioners: The Producers). Five years later, Grand Rapids Press reported that Dixon considers a subsequent production, presented at Saugatuck, Michigan’s Mason Street Warehouse, to be “the world premiere of a substantially rewritten script.”

In 2012 Dixon published a memoir, Secrets of a Life On Stage … and Off. That title would be a fair description of Scenery, as we find Marion (Laurie Hardy) and Richard (Thom Carroll) in their dressing room at New York’s Belasco Theatre; and onstage, starring in a new play, The Anniversary Wake.

The opening-night mood is harried and petulant. Marion is frantically trying to learn lines, while Richard complains about the production staff, particularly its younger members. Both characters express annoyance about numerous aspects of the new play, and their profession in general. Neither thinks much of the gifts that have arrived in the dressing room; these include flowers, bottles of liquor, and an elegant edition of Macbeth. The sender of the latter item is not revealed until later.

In different ways, both thespians are struggling to come to terms with the fact that they are aging, and their place in the industry is changing. Richard’s tendency, at least outwardly, is denial. Marion is concerned that her “seams” are not straight — a line that could refer to a costume or to plastic surgery.

We discover that the relationship between the couple is tearing at the seams. They clearly help and depend on each other (as exemplified by Marion helping Richard with a bit of costuming intended to make him appear thinner). But they have not been intimate for some time, for reasons that become clear, and Marion abruptly announces that it would be best if they divorced. Ironically, we subsequently hear a passage from The Anniversary Wake in which their characters resolve never to part.

Much of the physical comedy comes from poking fun at theatrical superstitions. Marion and Richard go through considerable pains to forestall bad luck after traditionally taboo words, or titles of certain plays, continually creep into their conversation. Another source of slapstick humor is the dressing room’s troublesome plumbing, amusingly realized by Evan Paine’s sound design.

An occupational hazard of a play that is 15-20 years old is that excessively topical humor can become stale. Justifiable but often-heard rants about disruptive cell phone use by audience members (a segment that might be more effective at the beginning), and a rather tired joke about Michael Jackson, are not the script’s strongest points.

The dialogue is at its best when the lines are more character-driven (Marion’s frenzied meditation, “Get my breath, get my center, get my gun”); witty without strenuously trying to be topical (Richard remarking to Marion, “Somebody sent you a book; that’s novel”); and contemplative (Richard’s poetic speech in which he compares flowers to the livingness of live performances). Dixon also is deft at hiding nuggets of character development and plot information in all of the banter.

The script’s other key strength lies in the scope it offers the cast for versatile, memorable performances. Dixon’s own acting experience has made him adept at writing for performers. Carroll and Hardy make the most of this, letting their interpretations be conspicuously showy for much of the piece. Their performances are characterized by exaggerated gestures and — particularly in Carroll’s case — melodramatic vocal inflections. This affords heightened significance to the quieter reflective moments.

This careful balance is reflected in the direction by Judi Parrish (who also provides the lighting.) The staging astutely lets Marion and Richard spend a lot of time at opposite ends of the stage, underlining the emotional distance between them. A nice layer is added when, during a rare segment in which the characters are tender toward each other, they are on either side of a window. They need a
measure of separation to draw closer together. When they meet in the center — physically and metaphorically — it usually is to sit on the sofa for infrequent, but redeeming, moments of rapport.

In keeping with the play’s title, the set is elaborate and eye-filling. (The design is by John M. Maurer. Hayley Schmalbach and Maurer are listed as scenic artists; Jill Katz is credited with “props and set dressing.”)

The lavish collection of furnishings — framed programs from past productions, piles of gifts that have been sent to the couple, and a homey sofa — makes the space resemble an apartment more than a typical dressing room. Although The Anniversary Wake is just opening, Marion and Richard seem to have lost little time in making the space their own.

Ruth Schanbacher’s suitably flamboyant costumes are nicely matched with the scenery. At one point Richard wears a shirt that somewhat resembles the wallpaper, reflecting his inexorable connection to the room (and by extension, the theater). Marion is outfitted with a gown that is peppered with flowers — an apt bit of irony, because she often complains about the smell of flowers in the dressing room.

The program describes the time setting as “present day.” Although the play’s production history lets us assume that refers to the early or mid-2000s, it is a somewhat odd designation. Aside from the contemporary references mentioned above, there is little to anchor Scenery to that time period. It feels like it originates from an earlier time.

This largely is a result of the script’s themes, and the resulting production choices. Illustrative of the extent to which Marion and Richard feel old-fashioned, a rotary phone hangs on the dressing room wall. The music played before curtain time and during intermission is notable: we hear Stephen Sondheim’s “Broadway Baby” (from the musical Follies), and a waltz.

Of course, in light of current events there is something rather refreshing about an aesthetic that is conspicuously not a reflection of our own time. Having spent over a year watching many (often worthy) performances via a computer screen, it is bracing to sit in front of a palpable, lavish, three-dimensional set.

Against that set, Carroll and Hardy confidently deliver engaging performances, and they clearly enjoy performing together. These actors bring to entertaining life a script whose depiction of an idiosyncratic love between two thespians becomes a wry love letter by Dixon to the world of theater.

Scenery will play at the Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County Community College, 1200 Old Trenton Road in West Windsor, through February 13. The Kelsey Theatre website notes that this play is driven by mature themes and lightly peppered with adult humor and strong language. Parental discretion is advised.” COVID-19 precautions necessitate proof of vaccination, and the wearing of masks. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 570-3333.