Ooh, shiny! Slick, shallow, and irresistibly diverting, "The Scene" is a poisoned little trinket of a play. In the hands of the Lyric Stage Company, Theresa Rebeck's latest smart satire gets a stylish production, with enough knockout performances to divert you from its essential superficiality.
Rebeck, with her long association with the "Law & Order" franchise and other crime TV, knows plenty about the vicious show-business world she's dissecting here. It is perhaps more surprising to learn, from a note in the Lyric's program, that she created "The Scene" as "a perverse retelling of 'Of Human Bondage,' " the Somerset Maugham novel that's perhaps best remembered for Bette Davis's onscreen embodiment of its manipulative young trollop.
Maugham might not recognize Rebeck's Manhattan, but he'd surely smile at how she's transformed yesterday's trollop into today's party girl: icy-hot Clea, a deceptively vacuous import from Ohio who's ready to claw her way to stardom in New York. He'd see, too, how his weary, tempted doctor (Leslie Howard, on film) could become a washed-up middle-aged actor, Charlie, who's equally helpless in the path of a scheming female.
Granted, that sort of melodrama probably went down easier in 1934. But Rebeck keeps it spinning along here with plenty of snappy lines and sharp observations, both of her characters and of the narcissistic, empty culture they at once deplore and perpetuate.
We first meet Charlie at a rich man's party with his best friend, Lewis, who is urging him to network with a despised acquaintance in hopes of getting cast in a pilot; Charlie is bitter, wised-up, and very funny as he comments on the scene. He's even funnier once the newly minted scenester Clea shows up; her vapid "like, totally" idiom annoys him almost as much as her blond gorgeousness entices Lewis. But things soon take a darker turn, one that it would be unfair to say too much about - though, as with many of the plot developments, it's more predictable than Rebeck seems to think.
In any case, none of this would be half so entertaining without the bravura performance of Georgia Lyman, who makes Clea into a kind of gleaming, glorious monster. At first you think she's just hoping to be a starlet; then you realize she's much smarter, and meaner, than that - and you still can't take your eyes off her.
Neither can Jeremiah Kissel's Charlie, whose rumpled charm retains our sympathy even as he sinks ever lower into degradation. Charlie hates himself so much that we just can't, and Kissel keeps this contradiction effortlessly aloft, even when the plot paints him into a corner.
Julie Jirousek is less fortunate as Charlie's mistreated wife, Stella; it's never quite clear whether we're supposed to pity Stella or despise her, and Jirousek's brittle take on this driven career woman only increases the distance we feel from her. Barlow Adamson, meanwhile, does what he can with the underwritten role of Lewis, making his conflicted loyalties believable and touching. But both of them, inevitably, take a back seat to the flamboyant Clea and her hapless prey.
Director Scott Edmiston keeps it all gliding along with just the right tone of world-weary fascination. He's working once again with his design team from last season's "Miss Witherspoon," and the collaboration is, as always, a delightfully skilled and polished one. Gail Astrid Buckley gives Clea a marvelous wardrobe of slinky little black dresses and stilettos; Janie E. Howland contributes a sleek and adaptable set, with shifting mirrors creating an appropriate backdrop to the shifting relationships; and Dewey C. Dellay's sound design features some delectably slithery music.
The irony, unfortunately, is that Rebeck's insights into the lust for fame are hardly any deeper than the culture she's mocking. For most of the evening, though, the gleaming surfaces of this production are dazzling enough to keep us from minding too much.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.