It looks like quite the nice reunion of old theatrical buddies gathering together to reminisce about a play that they all did ten years ago. They have all come together in an old haunt, the once swanky Talk House, that has fallen on a bit of hard times. From the chatter of these old friends, that fall is shared by roughly half of those once prosperous theatre folk. It also sounds like the world they now live in is not only different from ten years ago, but very different from the world we live in. It’s an alternative reality, a dystopian time filled with a different kind of life and death survival. It’s the same type of universe that Matthew Broderick, as the writer Robert, describes in terms of his playwriting and his plays, as he ushers us into an Evening at the Talk House. He tells us he writes plays that take place in a historically inaccurate time and place, a parallel universe similar but different from our own. Sadly the universe that Wallace Shawn has written, and Robert ushers us into, is a fascist age where passivity and complicity reign over a violent and casually aggressive society, one that doesn’t seem as out of reach or as fantastical as it would have even one year ago.
Robert, in a very long descriptive monologue, basically introduces us to the cast of characters we are going to spend the next 100 minutes with. Gathering this Evening at the Talk House to celebrate the anniversary of Robert’s play, Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars (quite the pretentious title, I must say) is the costume designer, Annette (a wonderfully nuanced Claudia Shear), the leading man, Tom (a wonderfully droll Larry Pine), the producer, Bill, (an underused by good Michael Tucker), and the musical director/composer, Ted (a sly and brittle John Epperson). Broderick is his usual self, a bit too genial; sweet-talking on the surface but the motives are questionable underneath. It’s a good match for Broderick. We don’t quite trust his kindness, but he doesn’t seem devious, just passive. He gives us the back stories on each and every one coming together tonight. While doing so, he also is telling us a lot about his life and career as a writer. He doesn’t give us a heads up on this alternate universe that will become obvious through the casual chatter of this group of friends. But life for the average theatre folk is very different in this realm; guilt, shame, and defensiveness are layered much thicker in Shawn’s universe.
There seems to be a fair amount of good will towards each other in this group, at least on the surface, but also resentments and jealousy. The theatrical world seems to have fallen out of favor, and these people have either adapted by moving on to television (a weird and strangely powerful world by the way Shawn describes it) or they have turned to more dubious acts. It seems there is a whole industry devoted to the war against ‘those who want to cause us harm’, and many more than we can imagine are complicit and involved. Annette (Shear) and Ted (Epperson) all admit to being involved, much to the horror of Bill (Tucker) and Tom (Pine), both of whom have done very well in the television industry and seem oblivious to this perverse way of supplementing income. Is it just denial or the lack of financial need that these two can so easily turn a blind eye to horrendous acts being committed in the name of ‘safety’? And for Annette and Ted, are they both sleeping well at night knowing their acts of ‘targeting’ those ‘others’ that may bring harm to ‘us’ are quite violent and deadly?
Milling around the Talk House, even as we arrive pre-show to the lovely sitting room arena; a wonderful environment created by the design team (scenic design: Derek McLane; costume: Jeff Mahshie; lighting: Jennifer Tipton), is the sweet and charming host, the engaging Nellie (beautiful portrayed by Jill Eikenberry), the complex actor turned waitress, Jane (Annapurna Sriram), and of course, over in the corner, a bruised and pajamaed Dick (the always interesting and engaging Wallace Shawn). Dick is a washed up actor, hanging on the edges of sanity, who has a complicated attachment to Robert and his play. The cast and playwright take us through a funny, wild ride alongside these theatre workers, as we get a glimpse into what that cruel disconnected world they live in looks and feels like. Although the night is filled with humor and wit, it’s not a pretty picture they paint. Not one I hope to live in.
As directed by Scott Elliot, the interaction of these friends show a disconnect from each other and from the emotionality of their society. Congenial and friendly, but how they actually feel about one another is either disturbing or confusing. Broderick’s Robert says at the beginning that the idea of knowing your friends well is a discarded old-fashioned concept. And this play is evidence of that. It is also a bit shocking in how relevant Evening at the Talk House is to the political times we now live in, but this is not a gathering that I would have wanted to be invited to. Besides the defensiveness and protectiveness of these characters to each other and themselves; the ‘social club of one’ mentality, there are too many moments that don’t flow or that feel repetitive. The private one-on-one conversations between Robert and Sriram’s Jane feel the most awkward both in the dialogue as written and the widely disconnected rhythm in their conversation. And although the ending in general was not a shock, it also didn’t make much sense either. Although this Evening at the Talk House kept me tuned in, I can’t say I was throughly engaged. This is one cocktail party that I wish I had skipped.
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