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Middle-aged rage fuels the married couple Charlie and Stella in Theresa Rebeck’s less-than-it-seems drama The Scene, which has just opened off-Broadway.

He is a once-promising actor whose career has fallen into such disarray that he is forced to beg a bit part on an old friend’s sitcom pilot; she is a booker for a TV talk show who comes home to find her husband in flagrante delicto with the young, blonde, stiletto-booted Clea.

Neither Charlie nor Stella takes setbacks passively: their verbal arias on the creeping sense of powerlessness besetting the middle-aged in a vapid, youth-centred culture are fuelled by dynamic anger. If Rebeck’s understanding of such impotence is impressive, it still takes a large leap of imagination in this production to believe in Tony Shalhoub and Patricia Heaton as the married couple. He stars in the successful television drama Monk; she recently exited one of America’s most popular comedies, Everybody Loves Raymond.

Heaton’s background matters more here than Shalhoub’s. Her ingrained sitcom manner – the confidence that a bit of facial mugging will camouflage insufficient characterisation – keeps subverting Stella’s humanity. Shalhoub, on the other hand, commits completely to Charlie, a narcissist who loathes narcissism, and the result is blisteringly funny.

When Rebeck’s play premiered last spring at the Humana Festival, in Louisville, the casting of the couple was almost too youthful, making the story more twenty-something versus thirty-something than immaturity versus middle age. By widening the gulf, the director Rebecca Taichman has intensified the play’s existential humour.

Anna Camp, as Clea, is the only Louisville holdover. While her interpretation can hardly be faulted, her as-written naivety – her insistence that she is just a bumpkin from Ohio – too often approaches stereotype. And the evening’s ending – the marriage disintegrates and we discover that Charlie’s friend Lewis has long nursed a passion for Stella – culminates in a scene that still feels considerably too abrupt. Even as Shalhoub strives manfully to make us believe otherwise.

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