By Donna Herman
It’s a play,,,it’s a party…its’s hard to tell when you walk into the Linney Theatre to see Evening at the Talk House. You arrive through grand double doors looking at the set of a plush lounge with a huge crystal chandelier. There are comfortable arm chairs and sofas, and everyone is milling about. Servers offer you sweets and neon colored drinks, and the ushers urge you to “please mingle.” Charmed, curious, I took my seat. This was not what I was expecting from the NY Times article about Wallace Shawn’s latest play, “Drama as Protest: ‘Our Complacency is Dangerous.”
I’m so used to the gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands that accompany any political discussions these days, that I was unprepared for the festive atmosphere. But it was a clever way to hook me in from the beginning. Although I knew we were about to embark on a journey to a dystopian world, I started to relax and enjoy myself before the play began. The cast had wandered out during the pre-show festivities and mingled themselves. So starting the play was a simple matter of seeing that no audience members remained on stage and a bell being rung.
The first 15 minutes of Evening at the Talk House belong to Matthew Broderick. Literally. His character, Robert has a 10 page monologue in which he sets up the entire story, introduces all the characters and manages to keep us all engaged and entertained. Some of the cast and crew of Robert’s play “Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars” has reconvened for the 10th anniversary of it’s opening at the Talk House, a club they used to frequent every night after the show. It was a seminal time for them all and they’ve come to reminisce. They’ve all changed, as has the theater, indeed the world.
Shawn has cleverly set this play in the world of the theater and made the main character Robert a bit of a pedant, a bit self-involved, one of those, you know, “theater people.” They take themselves a little too seriously. So, when Robert goes on a bit – and he does go on – about the decline of the theater and how he’s MUCH happier doing the kind of TV writing he’s doing now “Because, what exactly was theatre, really, when you actually thought about it? You’d have to say that it was utterly and irreducibly about a small group of humans sitting and staring at another small group of humans,” we laugh and assume his defection was about the money.
This production is also cast very well. With the exception of Matthew Broderick and Wallace Shawn who could both be labelled “stars,” the rest of the cast are familiar faces but not stars. Jill Eikenberry, Michael Tucker, Claudia Shear, John Epperson, Larry Pine & Annapurna Sriram, have all been doing theater, movies and television for many years and you will certainly recognize them if you don’t know their names. The fine ensemble acting and well-known faces immediately make the audience feel like they’re in their customary universe, with people they know well.
But as the play goes on and the characters start catching up, it becomes evident that what looks like our world, isn’t anymore. It’s very subtle until the penny drops, and you realize that what you’ve been laughing at is no joke. And while Shawn wrote this play several years ago, and it had its world premiere in London in the fall of 2015, it feels as if he could have written it last week. He presents a future in which there’s no need to build a wall, we just kill identified undesirables wherever they are before they have a chance to do us harm.
The genius of Evening at the Talk House is that it’s a play that makes you think about depressing things and allows you to laugh at the same time. I won’t go into a lengthy political diatribe here, but I will say there’s much food for thought. Especially for us baby boomers who grew up in the shadows of WWII thinking “it could never happen here.” But I will say, this is a rare theatrical event that made me think but didn’t make me bleed. Go see for yourself.
Evening at the Talk House by Wallace Shawn, Directed by Scott Elliott
WITH: Matthew Broderick (Robert); Jill Eikenberry (Nellie); John Epperson (Ted); Larry Pine (Tom); Wallace Shawn (Dick); Claudia Shear (Annette); Annapurna Sriram (Jane); Michael Tucker (Bill)
Scenic design by Derek McLane; costume design by Jeff Mahshie; lighting design by Jennifer Tipton; fight director, Jesse Geguzis; production stage manager, Valerie A Peterson; assistant stage manager, Nicole Iovino; production supervisor, Production Core; casting by Judy Henderson. Presented by The New Group, Scott Elliott, Artistic Director; Adam Bernstein, Executive Director. At The Pershing Square Signature Center, Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street. For tickets visit: www.ticketcentral.com or call 212-279-4200.