Interview: Josh Hamilton Jars Dianne Wiest's Memory Bank in SCENE PARTNERS

Scene Partners runs through December 17, 2023.

By: Nov. 22, 2023
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Interview: Josh Hamilton Jars Dianne Wiest's Memory Bank in SCENE PARTNERS
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Josh Hamilton hadn’t done a play in a half dozen years, but he’s making the most of it: He assumes the roles of a half dozen characters in Scene Partners, the reality-bending production starring Dianne Wiest.

Hamilton’s menagerie of characters play opposite Wiest’s Meryl Kowalski, a 75-year-old with dreams of stardom, in John J. Caswell Jr.’s fantastical Off-Broadway play which recently opened at the Vineyard Theatre.

Kowalski yearns to be celebrated internationally through Hollywood’s lens. She wants her tragic – yet ultimately uplifting, literally – life story to unfold in a heralded movie. Kowalski might be a figment of her own imagination, but her unquenchable sense of urgency propels the narrative forward and backward in time.

In order to fine tune her “acting” chops, she turns to Hugo Lockerby, director and acclaimed acting teacher.

Hamilton not only dons Lockerby’s persona, but he also inhabits a half-dozen characters central to Kowalski’s quest. Flawless acting, staging and creative design augment this under-two-hour (without intermission) puzzle buried within an enigma.

Scene Partners

Scene Partners is an existential crisis with a cherry on top. Kowalski’s journey is a pilgrimage. And a nightmare.

The audience is privy to what might be Kowalski’s full throttle dementia, hallucinatory nightmares or waking dreamscapes. Or maybe she’s already ascended to the Heaviside Layer made famous in Cats. Hamilton was noncommittal when pressed for the multi-layered play’s essential meaning.

“You’d have to ask the playwright,” he laughed after a recent performance. “The first draft – I didn’t know if I understood it at all,” he said. “The language was beautiful but confusing. But working with Dianne – she’s incapable of being emotionally untrue. “It’s how I like to work as well,” he added.

Scene Partners is directed by the Tony-winning Rachel Chavkin (Hadestown) and peopled by myriad characters and a singular trench coat that means the world to Kowalski. The all-enveloping cloak is a father fill-in.

Set in a magically realistic 1985 (sometimes), the play meanders through Kowalski’s life horrors that include being raped by her stepfather and having a mother that refuses to believe (or admit) the worst of her spouse. Throw in sex with a Russian on a train, her own daughter’s drug addiction and an earnest quest for fame.

We first encounter Kowalski after her abusive husband dies. She’s ditching Wisconsin, with a sensible suitcase, for California to make her wish upon a star come to pass. Lucky student, not only does she swiftly find an agent and acting coach, but also a contract to write the movie of her life. What kind of life? Nothing special, which is the point. Nothing is special, yet everything is. Lockerby is convinced that his prize pupil is Mensa material.

Scene PartnersHamilton thinks the production is as challenging for the actors as it is for the audience. When first reading the script, Hamilton wasn’t initially keen on tackling such a provocative and time-bending thesis.

“I hadn’t done a play for six years and I was so excited,” he reflected. “I was terrified,” but he knew he wanted to do it. “It was outside my comfort zone with the challenges of learning rewrites going on until a few days ago,” he said, as the play was about to open.

“It’s a love letter from John to his mother and grandmother,” Hamilton added, referring to Caswell, whose previous play, Wet Brain, plumbed the despair of an emotionally fraught family.

“He’s had experience with them having hallucinations and he wanted to explore the ideas of how to live,” he said. “Scene Partners is not a structured play, it’s a universe of possibilities, exuberance and theatricality.”

Prep time took longer than a production that’s typically set quickly. “Maybe three, four weeks before, we froze the Wednesday prior to opening. Rewrites are tough,” he admitted. A Broadway veteran, Hamilton anticipated stretching new muscles not associated with straightforward realism.

“Rachel has a crack team,” he said. Among the other creative magicians are Riccardo Hernández (scenic design), Alan Edwards (lighting design), David Bengali (video & projection design) and J. David Brimmer (fight choreographer).

“Every scene is very moving, funny and some lines hit me in ways that remind me of some of the most far-out thoughts I’ve had meditating. “It feels different every night, like adjusting the knobs with over-the-topness,” Hamilton added.

When he’s ready to decompress after a heady night battling Kowalski’s angels and demons, he turns to music. After a show, “I just walk home and listen to sounds I know will calm me. I’ve been listening a lot to Hiroshi Yoshimura a beautiful Japanese ambient composer.

“One great thing about a 7 p.m. curtain,” Hamilton said, “is that I get home in time to put my daughter to bed, which I don’t usually get to do when I’m doing a play.”

Scene Partners provides meaty moments rife with trauma and redemption, acted and re-acted by Kowalski’s fellow acting students.

“Usually,” Hamilton laughed, “I play one character.”