First Nighter: Ivo van Hove Undoes 'Scenes From a Marriage'

Discounting the rare scare flick, I've only once been tempted to look away from a movie screen--and succumbed to the urge. It was Ingmar Bergman's 1973 Scenes From a Marriage. The psychic pain was too much to take full on.

I had to turn away from what theater's leading deconstruction czar, Ivo van Hove, did with his Scenes From a Marriage stage adaptation for an entirely different reason. The clichés dumped on me -- perhaps many of them purloined from Bergman's script but cheapened -- became too much of a burden after a very short time.

But first you have to get a grasp on how Van Hove presents his scenes at the New York Theatre Workshop for a reported venue-transforming $575,000 price tag. For the first half of his three-hour production (not including 30-minute intermission), he divides the audience into three groups. Each group faces a minimal stage area that's one part of a triangular set that Jan Versweyveld, the director's usual collaborator, has arranged.

On the wall that each audience faces is a door and a window through which spectators can glimpse a central neutral triangular space into which the actors from all three sides often repair. Thanks to the windows, audience members also get a look at slivers of what's going on as the other two scenes unfold.

For the purposes of this review, I'll stick with that first half now and report that having spent approximately 30 minutes watching a first scene progress to a more or less conclusive finish, each audience moves to a second space and scene and then, after another 30 minutes or so, transfers to the third and final space and scene.

In each, Bergman's marrieds Johan and Marianne experience a relationship crisis. The Johans are played by Arliss Howard, Dallas Roberts and Alex Hurt, and the Mariannes are played by Tina Benko, Roslyn Ruff and Susannah Flood.

The Johans and Mariannes are numbered 1, 2 and 3, but forget about that, since, depending on the triangulants to which audience members are assigned, they may not witness the Johans and Mariannes in that order.

So what's eating at these Johans and Marianne's as they endlessly squabble and often charge into the aisles, sometimes sitting down inches from ticket buyers? The Howard-Benko duo tear at each other when he announces that (spoiler alert, although who wouldn't see it coming?) he's fallen in love with a 23-year-old called Paula and is flying to Paris with her in the morning.

The Hurt-Flood pair is hammer-and-tonging it because (spoiler alert, although who wouldn't see it coming?) she's pregnant, and--with two daughters already--she's ambivalent about having a third child. So is he. To be or not to be parents yet again? That is the question, and, needless to say, it has no easy answer.

The Roberts-Ruff couple simply seems to have hit a dull patch in their union, which this Marianne would like to address and this Johan accepts as par for the course of any lengthening marriage. Neither has the seven-year itch quite, but they're itchy all the same.

Okay, now on to the 90-minute second act. When the audience enters the NYTW auditorium this time, the walls of Versweyveld's triangular set-up have been raised, and the audience is seated all together in the round.

Whereupon all Johans and Marianne's enter--in the first few minutes switching previous pairings--to speak the same dialogue simultaneously as they confront each other over signing divorce papers. It's a duty that doesn't conclude without their having conjugal sex for old time's sake and also assailing each other physically for new time's sake. It's a knock-down-drag-out they think maybe they should have had much sooner.

This high-gear merry-go-round is then followed by a few codas, the longest one played by Howard and Benko. It's a reconciliation taking place a few years on and suggesting--somewhat sentimentally and perhaps meant to assuage troubled onlookers--that time heals everything. Well, how reassuring.

So what's Van Hove getting at by fracturing Bergman's Johan and Marianne into three pairs. He's certainly showing one couple at various stages of a shared life. But something else is implied as well. In the first half and as each audience watches the couple directly before them, the arguments the other two couple are having filter through the walls. The subliminal message is that no matter what living room, dining room or bedroom the couples are in, they're all experiencing crippling marital difficulties.

That's to say all marriages are the same: embattled, unendurable. Whereas Bergman was examining one marriage without ever hinting that connubial strife is universal, Van Hove is using Bergman as a peg on which to hang his cynical view of the, uh, institution--surely a disservice to the great Swedish artist and a disservice to any audience.

Along his wayward way, Van Hove--the billing reads "conceived and directed by," with Emily Mann credited for the English version--certainly counts on the clichés to get his point across. He and Mann drop synthetic pearls like "Can we please stop talking about it?" and "I don't know who I am" and "You're beautiful when you're angry."

Possibly, Van Hove employs these locutions deliberately. Possibly, he deliberately wants to say that all marriages are clichés. Okay, let's say they are. Audiences don't need to be reminded of what they know not to be completely unfair. But what's valuable, particularly for married couples, is not rehashing old observations but offering new insights.

Here's yet another problem with the first half of Scenes From a Marriage, which might have been subtitled Scenes from Marriages. Once patrons have watched a scene and had a gander through those peepshow windows at the other scenes, they watch the successive scenes knowing just how far into it the characters have progressed.

For instance, while watching one scene, ticket buyers hear a Marianne a room away put Leonard Cohen's "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" on a turntable. When those ticket buyers get to that space, they already know that when Leonard Cohen starts to croon, the scene is almost but not quite ending. So, ahead of Van Hove, they're consigned to wait out the few minutes they know have to tick by. (Leo A. Martin IV is the sound supervisor, who also has Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" and something that sounded like a Tom Waits track on his playlist.)

Where Van Hove succeeds completely is with his actors, each of them more than fit for the dramatic fizzworks, er, fireworks. No matter what verbal or bodily assaults are demanded, they come through. All the Johans and Mariannes are excellent -- Hurt and Flood the most histrionic, Roberts and Ruff the most agitatedly contemplative, Howard and Benko the most harriedly mature.

Also contributing effectively are Erin Gann and Carmen Zilles as, respectively, another husband and wife who detest each other; and Mia Katigbak as a woman in a loveless marriage, (She also appears as Marianne's mom in a late scene with Benko, and that's right, no marriage discussed is allowed to be happy.) Emma Ramos is a smitten assistant to the Roberts Johan.

Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with, of course, "Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." At least Leo Tolstoy acknowledges that there are such things as happy families. In an extended season when theater-goers have already watched combative couples in Donald Margulies' award-winning Dinner With Friends and Theresa Rebeck's deficient Poor Behavior, it's tiring to have to have noses rubbed in the dreary details of yet one -- or is it three? -- more under-siege duos.