There is no shortage of dystopian stories these days. Our blockbuster movies, television shows, and novels are set in oppressive regimes, a perfect setting for a band of plucky rebels or some sort of Chosen One to lead the people out of their bleak oppression and into a better future. In Wallace Shawn's Evening at the Talk House, now playing at A Red Orchid Theatre, the dystopia is all too real, but the heroes are nowhere to be seen.
Instead, we are introduced to Robert (Lance Baker), a writer for a successful TV show, who used to be a playwright. He's on his way to the Talk House, a cozy old cocktail club that has fallen out of fashion, for a 10-year reunion of the cast and crew of his final play, Midnight in a Clearing With Moon and Stars. Robert is joined by composer Ted (Doug Vickers), leading man Tom (Miguel Nunez), producer Bill (Noah Simon), and wardrobe supervisor Annette (Kristen Fitzgerald). They laugh, preen, and reminisce, waited on by the Talk House's beloved proprietor, Nellie (Natalie West, warmly maternal), and Jane (Sadieh Rifai), a waitress who was once an actress herself.
A mild night of catching up is interrupted by the presence of Dick (H.B. Ward), a washed-up actor carrying a lifetime of resentment. Dick is tattered and badly bruised following a severe beating by his "friends" — something Dick insists was a necessary and even pleasant experience. In the near future of Talk House, war has been abolished and crime is at an all-time low. Justice has become democratized — citizens identify potential criminals as a kind of side hustle, crunching numbers to find perpetrators of thought crimes as one might drive for Uber or Postmates. The less fortunate, more desperate Americans get out there and carry out the executions themselves. This arrangement leaves the well-off free to enjoy their safe, calm neighborhoods — provided they don't start thinking any problematic thoughts themselves.
As the troublesome Dick, Ward is a bull in a china shop, lurching around the Talk House as if he could upset the order of things at any moment. The performances of the other actors are all equally tremendous, if hard to watch. Baker is perfectly vile as Robert, with a carefully cultivated laissez-faire attitude that barely hides his condescension, superiority, and sheer terror. Even the pitiable Jane has shades of cruelty, which Rifai reveals with frank vulnerability.
Under Shade Murray's direction, the 100-minute play is designed to make its audience profoundly uneasy. Mary O'Dowd's richly detailed prop design suggests a watering hole clinging to days gone by. Claire Chrzan's lights and Brando Triantafillou's sound design create excellent transitions, and Myron Elliott's costumes help indicate class and status.
Part of the beauty of Shawn's play is its attention to the lengths to which people go to get comfortable. To that extent, Evening at the Talk House is aimed directly at its audience. Theatergoers in general tend to be a privileged bunch, especially in Chicago's wealthy Old Town neighborhood, where A Red Orchid is located. How much are we willing to overlook as long as we are secure, well-fed, and entertained? Some people will find being implicated unwelcome, but for anybody who can stomach it, the chilling Talk House is a vital and revealing night at the theater.
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