We gave it a B+
We’ve all overheard a couple of strangers getting into a loud argument. Especially in an apartment building—where the volume of the voices is directly proportion to the thickness of the walls—listening carries with it a sense of inappropriate curiosity and subsidiary dread. It’s that feeling that’s simulated in Scenes From a Marriage, playing until October 26 at New York Theatre Workshop (which has had its entire space temporarily reconstructed for the occasion).
A textually faithful adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Swedish miniseries (it was also released as a feature film in 1974), the play’s first three acts are performed on three small separate stages. Each triangle-shaped space is devoted to an eventful episode in the lives of our main characters, Marianne and Johan. In one, she tells him she’s pregnant; in another, they bicker about their fading sex life; in a third, he announces he’s having an affair. The audience is split into three parts; each section watches each segment, then moves to the neighboring 60-seat space to catch the next. The noises from the adjacent scenes mix together, creating a wondrous disharmony. Someone screaming ”So you think it’s my fault?” from one portion can be heard behind walls in another. Exclamations of ”Stop!” and ”Damnit!” from somewhere else mix with light moments on a different stage. (He’s not known for high comedy, but Bergman’s dry, droll humor is preserved in this production.)
The performers bounce off each other like echoes as well. Roslyn Ruff and Dallas Roberts are touching as Marianne and Johan in the best and gentlest segment, in which a small thing like backing out of a family party means major consequences. Ruff, especially, is exquisite in her sense of calm, containing all of Marianne’s neurosis about the past and the future in her tense carriage. Susannah Flood and Alex Hurt emotionally drain themselves as the couple in their youngest stage. Tina Benko and Arliss Howard, as the older pair, are the angriest and most sexually kinetic of the group, yet their tone feels slightly isolated by the characters’ defeated sarcasm—which is not leavened by Benko over-pronouncing every line.
Scenes From a Marriage loses both its novelty as a theatrical experience and its dramatic power in the second act. The theater is reordered during a lengthy half-hour intermission; the final three scenes are presented in the round. When the divided spaces are taken away, so are the intimate texture and nervy excitement that came with them. But credit is due to the adventurous director Ivo van Hove (known for daring adaptations of The Little Foxes and Hedda Gabler at NYTW) and his heroic production designer Jan Versweyveld. They’ve created a daring piece of one-off drama that redefines the way things are done downtown. B+