Do you think two people can spend their entire lives together?” asks Marianne, shaking her head at her friends Katrina and Peter, who have just spoiled a young-adults’ dinner party with spousal discord. That’s the ultimate question hovering over Scenes From a Marriage, an unforgettable new stage version of Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1974 film (and the 1973 Swedish-TV miniseries that preceded it), conceived and directed for New York Theatre Workshop by Ivo van Hove.
It’s not a good play to bring your date to. Over a 20-year span, Marianne and her husband, Johan, find emotional honesty harder to sustain and pay a steep price — only to rekindle it once they’ve released themselves from marriage’s demands. Physical attraction, too, fades into the background — a source of shame and pain not easily articulated. Family pressures weigh heavily on their psyches, until one spouse needs to break free to reclaim the person who got lost in a thicket of emotional obligations. Bergman’s script (in Emily Mann’s superb English version) is by turns harrowing, raw, and supersaturated with rich psychologies. The intimate dialogues are beautiful, compelling, and (at three and a half hours) occasionally tedious.
Van Hove’s structure is the defining event here, and it’s brilliant dramaturgy — the kind of bold and confident interpretive directing we rarely get to see in New York productions. The artistic director of Toneelgroep Amsterdam, van Hove uses theater’s live spatial dimensions to express the temporalities Bergman evoked on film.
For the first half, the audience divides into three groups. Each watches a different scene from Johan and Marianne’s marriage playing simultaneously in different rooms. When an episode ends, we move to the adjacent station, always aware of other scenes via upstage windows facing into a common space — a sort of hub-and-spoke system. The actors change, but the characters remain constant. That simple fact carries so much meaning here: Johan and Marianne are actually different people at these various points in their lifetime evolutions — and yet they’re always the same fundamental characters, always changing and yet unchanged.
When we return for the second half, Jan Versweyveld’s set raises to the rafters, merging the three spaces. The casts merge too, along with the three phases of Johan’s and Marianne’s lives we’ve witnessed. Now three Johans and three Mariannes engage in the same scene. Three different Johans stand behind the same exclamation; three Mariannes express their weariness on a wrenching evening anticipating divorce formalities. As we sit in the round, we’re aware of each other for the first time, too: Society seems to be on display as much as the couple is. (The evening telescopes back to intimacy in the late scenes.)
In Holland, van Hove’s permanent Toneelgroep ensemble has an elastic and committed physicality that fulfills the director’s adventurous forms. This American cast can’t always match it, despite standout performances by Rosyln Ruff and Tina Benko (as Marianne 2 and 3) and by Dallas Roberts (as Johan 2). The scenework feels underdeveloped or tentative in places, without being freely improvisatory, either. The best moments, however, such as Marianne’s meltdown at having to go to her mother’s for dinner, evoke her tender anguish with fragility, making you wonder how much fuller the piece might have grown with more development time. But as this production reminds us — sometimes devastatingly — time is always the culprit, forcing us to evaluate what we have and how closely we need to hold it.
Scenes From a Marriage
By Ingmar Bergman
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street