The play may be the thing, but often it's a single scene that leaves an indelible image, making a mediocre play worth seeing, lifting a good play toward greatness or providing a great play with the extra resonance that elevates it to the status of a classic. There is no Tony Award for best scene, but if there were, these would be our choices.
'A DAY IN THE DEATH OF JOE EGG'
By Peter Nichols
The scene: After a bitter spat, Bri (Eddie Izzard) and Sheila (Victoria Hamilton), who are drained from years of caring for their severely handicapped daughter, turn to the audience to explain themselves by reenacting their past. This play-acting is clearly something they do often, clinging together and seeking solace in their bittersweet laughter. In the scene, Bri takes on numerous personas, including a pontificating doctor who relies on car engine analogies to explain illnesses; a Viennese doctor who advises, "Keep her vell sedated you'll hartly know she's zere"; and a vicar, who in Bri's interpretation claims that the Church of England is no longer strongly opposed to premarital sex and is "nowadays a far more swinging scene than you seem to suppose."
Why it's worthy: The dynamic chemistry between Izzard and Hamilton makes the scene crackle with life, and enables them to make this thoroughly theatrical scene feel intimate and painfully realistic. Their playfulness, even with its cutting edge, reveals how happy Bri and Sheila must have once made each other; their desperation and frustration ring true even as Izzard stomps through silly accents and Hamilton cradles a cushion as her baby.
The writing demolishes the fourth wall, thus implicating the audience in the action and dances brilliantly along a knife's edge, steering from dark one-liners to playful slapstick to tragic revelations. "Every time the audience starts to feel comfortable," Hamilton says, "the scene shocks them back into focus."
Behind the scenes: During rehearsals and early performances, Hamilton and Izzard weren't aware this was the "big scene," focusing instead on finding the despair that grounds even the funniest moments. "The way it has grown has surprised both of us," Hamilton says. "Knowing it's the [showstopper] makes us look forward to it more."
'LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT'
By Eugene O'Neill
The scene: In Act 2's second scene, Mary (Vanessa Redgrave), back in the throes of her morphine addiction, alternates between self-pity and out-of-the-blue attacks on her husband before finally stabbing him with her triumphant declaration: "Come to think of it, I do have to drive uptown. There's something I must get at the drugstore." Enraged, James (Brian Dennehy) returns fire, recounting the night she couldn't find drugs and "ran out of the house in your nightdress half crazy, to try and throw yourself off the dock." He feels ashamed and apologizes but is devastated when she blankly states, "Nothing like that ever happened. You must have dreamed it," and slips back toward the reverie of her past.
Why it's worthy: This production has many great scenes, but this one -- in which the illusion the Tyrones grasped at is fully shattered -- is pivotal. Redgrave controls the stage, manipulating her husband and capturing Mary's volatility and dissolution. In this scene, Tyrone finally realizes that Mary's addiction rules their life and that he is utterly defeated -- but facing this reality also inspires him to subsequently treat Edmund more generously.
Behind the scenes: Dennehy and Redgrave spent long hours after rehearsals practicing this scene, but the actor still must stay on his toes. "She changes every night," he says. "You never know what she's going to do, but whatever happens is right because she's a genius." Dennehy believes the unpredictability is appropriate. "When you see this production you understand what it's like to live with this woman and what it costs them to have her back on drugs."
'THE PLAY WHAT I WROTE'
By Hamish McColl, Sean Foley and Eddie Braben
The scene: Hamish McColl yearns to replace the comedy act he performs with partner Sean Foley with his new French Revolution tragedy. But to do so, he must land a big star. Finally a celebrity shows up -- Kevin Kline, Al Roker and Liam Neeson are among the guests who have taken turns -- and endures the slapstick humiliations of Foley and McColl, then "acts" in a scene from McColl's epic.
Why it's worthy: The barrage of puns, pratfalls and other silliness lacks context and soon wears thin, so the celebrity's entrance and the revolution scene are not just a long-awaited payoff, they give much-needed form to the manic, scattershot comedic approach. Plus, there's a guilty pleasure watching stars purposely make fools of themselves.