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Toxic beauty sets ‘The Scene' for trouble

A hostess so determined to throw an unforgettable dinner party that she invites an actual Muslim terrorist.

A newly single mom who seems to attract all the wrong guys – as in, gay, obsessed with their own irritable bowels and/or tied to the Romanian Mafia.

A sweet young thing from Ohio who comes to New York, attends a few parties and drives otherwise intelligent men to their doom.

Where does playwright Theresa Rebeck find these people?

“Rarely do I try to pull a creature out of life and make it a character,” says Rebeck, an author familiar to Charlotte audiences for such recent works as “Omnium Gatherum” (co-written with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, staged last year by Carolina Actors Studio Theatre); “Bad Dates” (produced by Collaborative Arts in 2006, in a Dilworth condo); and now, at Actor's Theatre, “The Scene.”

This satire features Clea, a gorgeous Manhattan newcomer who gets her claws into a chronically out-of-work actor named Charlie. He's smart, talented, principled, pretty happily married – but desperate, after two dry decades in show business, for some piece of the action.

By the end of “The Scene's” first scene, that piece has a name.

“She's really an amalgam of a lot of different aspects of (real) people,” Rebeck says of Clea, possibly the most toxic 20-something female ever to grace an American stage. “As I first started writing her, the sound of her voice was so strong, it became very easy.”

Clea and Charlie meet at a party, one of those over-the-top Manhattan soirees Rebeck admits she once dreamed of attending. (Rebeck explores this same milieu, and the equally exotic world of Off-Broadway theater, in her new first novel, “Three Girls and Their Brother.”) Charlie and his friend Lewis, who's single, are amused by Clea's naïveté, then disgusted by her superficiality, and then – in spite of themselves – intrigued by her flashes of insight.

Or maybe it's just her breasts.

“When I first read the play, I was thinking, ‘I think I know this girl!'” says Kelsey Formost, a rising senior at Davidson College making her Actor's Theatre debut as Clea. “Oh yeah, she's everywhere. She's at Davidson.” Formost laughs.

Then she goes into character: “Rebeck throws in a lot of question marks, in the middle of sentences? So that Clea? Has this upward inflection?”

Formost explains, “That happens a lot with girls my age. We're always wanting approval. It's like, ‘I don't have an opinion? I'm seeking input first?' Men don't worry about that.”

Beneath those tentative vocal mannerisms, though, Clea has nerves of steel – and she easily unnerves Charlie, played here by ATC regular Brian Robinson.

“It would be so easy to judge (Clea) and say it's all her fault,” Formost says. “But she never once makes him do anything.”

Rebeck agrees. “The Scene” grew out of the playwright's interest in “self-loathing and self-destruction,” she explains: “That's Charlie's journey.”

Still, Rebeck must feel some remorse for unleashing a creature like Clea upon unsuspecting Charlies, and audiences – from Louisville (where “The Scene” premiered, sensationally, at Humana Festival 2006) to New York (in 2007, with a celebrity cast) and now Charlotte.

“I didn't unleash her,” Rebeck says, after a moment of thought. “I just observed her.”