The clouds of an impending financial collapse loom large in The Engagement Party. Even though the characters of Samuel Baum’s play, now running at the Geffen Playhouse, are clueless about what’s in store, their behavior reflect the betrayals, over-confidence, and greed that led to the devastating global market crash in 2008.
College sweethearts Josh (Jonah Platt) and Katherine (Bella Heathcote) throw an engagement party for themselves at their posh Park Avenue penthouse. Though Josh has built a successful hedge fund career, his childhood as a working-class Jew still motivates his hunger for upward mobility. Katherine has led a charmed life, insulated by her wealthy parents — equity-trader Conrad (Richard Bekins) and Southern belle, Gail (Wendie Malick). Joining her parents are their college friends Alan (Mark Jacobson) and married couple Haley (Lauren Worsham) and Kai (Brian Lee Huynh). Last to arrive is Josh’s estranged old neighborhood friend Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy).
The evening begins with laughs, wine, Bloody Marys, as well as an underlying tension between the haves and the have-nots. But the situation explodes when a valuable object goes missing. Suddenly, secrets come bubbling to the surface and relationships are quickly ruined when the truth is revealed.
Unfortunately, Baum employs eye-rolling tropes that make the characters feel stale. The story requires the flair and satirical edge of Yasmina Reza’s Art or God of Carnage, or the desperate familial tortures of Arthur Miller. But Baum’s work takes itself too seriously and squanders the situation without saying something fresh, merely reinforcing stereotypes that are both hackneyed and infuriating.
Director Darko Tresnjak, who also directed the world premiere in 2019 at Hartford Stage, draws out these already heavy scenes. The opening setup is dry and deliberate, taking on the air of a 1920s drawing room comedy. But once tables are overturned, the pacing never catches fire, revealing the plot’s creakiness. Eventually the melodrama surrounding the missing object and the earlier treacheries sinks the evening.
It doesn’t help that the talented cast feel out of sync with their roles. That’s not their fault. The characters, who have apparently known each other for years, seem like strangers to one another, so their exchanges lack authenticity.
Joshua Pearson’s costumes perfectly reflect the guests’ financial status, particularly Malick’s Chanel-inspired suit. Alexander Dodge’s scenic design is exquisite. The two-story revolving set reveals different rooms, each more extravagant than the last. The details — from the Netflix DVD envelopes in the mail separator to the pricy blown-glass pottery — reveal a couple who never fear getting their monthly credit card bills.
Despite the well-placed details of conspicuous consumption, The Engagement Party is neither poignant enough to be piercing drama nor witty enough to be good satire. There is much more misplaced than just a piece of jewelry.