I may be getting intolerant in my old age, because I am increasingly disappointed with plays that are divided into scenes. Scenes that flow into each other or provide some real twist or resolution are generally OK, but other than that when the lights go down onstage I expect them to come up in the house.
I had this problem last year during Theatre Intime’s production of Betty’s Summer Vacation. Christopher Durang cut his scenes too quickly, and it seemed to me that many of the plot points came as hit-and-run collisions. I never got a chance to gauge the impact of heads in a box or penises in the freezer. And that’s sad.
Last month I saw The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife at Paper Mill Playhouse and had the same problem. Charles Busch’s scenes seemed to end just because he needed some time to pass. Sometimes there were “curtain lines,” but other times there were conversations that abruptly faded-out. And it wasn’t like a fade-out at the end of a song, it was like a fade-out while turning down the music to answer the phone. It felt out of place.
But look who’s talking. All of the full length plays on this site use scenes within their acts. The scenes of The Marley Show are sometimes as short as seven minutes long. Are they justified? I think they are, in part. None of the scenes fade out, most of the time they end with a suitably dramatic twist. And when Moe falls out of the car or Bill knocks himself unconscious, the scenes stop because they genuinely have derailed: there’s no place left to go. The pins must be reset to be knocked down again.
I think a good rule for scenes is this: blend or end. One scene must either seamlessly transfer to the next or have a big enough finish that an audience has to take it all in, rather than spend those precious seconds of transition just waiting for what happens next. Durang’s scenes had the shock of a scene-end, but not the weight. And Busch’s didn’t burn out, they faded away. If you ask me, playwrights need more advice from rock stars. Unless it’s to make this.