Evening at the Talk House
Matthew Broderick stars in Wallace Shawn's deceptive dystopian thriller.
Everything about the Talk House, the fictional lounge in Wallace Shawn's Evening at the Talk House, instills a feeling of comfort: The room is filled with crystal decanters, cushy furniture, and top-shelf liquor. We are offered gummy candy and sparkling water whimsically tinted with food coloring as we enter the space. We see John Epperson hovering around an upright piano, and we just know he is going to play something lovely (he eventually does). The only thing missing from Derek McLane's warm and inviting set is a roaring fire. So then why does this U.S. debut from the New Group leave us with such an unshakable chill?
The answer lies in Shawn's talent for stealthily climbing into our brains and planting a time bomb of horror. He lulls us into a false sense of comfort, exploiting the complacency that is very much at the heart of his story.
It begins with a verbose expository monologue from Robert (Matthew Broderick). Robert was once an unsuccessful playwright, but through a series of happy accidents (mostly relating to some very powerful people who became early fans of his work), he is now showrunner on America's favorite sitcom, Tony and Company. He has returned to the Talk House for a reunion with the cast and crew of his play, Midnight in a Clearing With Moon and Stars, about which everyone has very fond memories. All of them have gone on to various levels of success: Ted (Epperson) composed the incidental music for the play and now occasionally writes commercial jingles. Wardrobe supervisor Annette (Claudia Shear) does private tailoring, while producer Bill (Michael Tucker) became a talent agent. The star of the show, Tom (Larry Pine), is Tony on Tony and Company.
At this point you might be groaning, "Another play about thespians talking about themselves." But as the evening progresses, little cracks appear in the pleasantry of their reunion: The guests sip cocktails and eat shrimp from iced martini glasses as the conversation turns toward "targeting," which we come to understand means state-sponsored assassination. Dick (Wallace Shawn), a formerly popular actor, appears at the club beaten and bruised. Everyone seems slightly on guard, bringing into sharp focus Robert's earlier warning that the walls have ears.
The art of dystopian drama is crafting a reality that feels familiar to the audience, so that we can easily draw a line between our world and the one onstage. Shawn has created a world that is uncanny, especially for anyone who frequents the New York theater. The characters feel like they could have all been picked up outside the Ripley-Grier rehearsal Studios. Innocuously liberal and brimming with war stories from the stage, they wear an idiosyncratic blend of casual and dress clothes as if to be ever-prepared for an impromptu movement audition (spot-on costumes by Jeff Mahshie). None of them feel particularly threatening.
Club proprietor Nellie (a lovable Jill Eikenberry) and her assistant, Jane (Annapurna Sriram, radiating a muted sadness through steadfast professionalism), help reinforce our imagined security. Both offer the kind of natural hospitality that helps us understand why the Talk House is so beloved.
There is one aspect of Shawn's play that strains credulity: His characters use the most blunt and precise language to describe the most horrific actions. "I worked as a murderer for the Special Areas Project for three or four years," Jane says, discussing her fallback career after acting didn't pan out. In our era of focus-grouped rebranding, such a job would be given a more inoffensive title: perhaps, "threat elimination specialist."
That quibble aside, Shawn seamlessly blends deathly serious themes with his unique brand of absurd humor. As was the case with his last play, Grasses of a Thousand Colors, news from the outside world reaches this allegedly safe space like the faint echo of thunder before an approaching storm.
As Dick, Shawn himself portrays the play's Cassandra: His erratic behavior and loose tongue make him the subject of pity and ridicule (Mahshie outfits him in pajamas to underline this crazy-old-man routine). We wonder why a successful guy like Robert seems so rattled by his presence.
It is such a pleasure to report that as Robert, Broderick has finally been cast in a role that benefits from his mild-mannered falseness. With over-the-top humility, the millionaire showrunner with ties to the government seems to be constantly denying his own power, making him all the more menacing.
Director Scott Elliott stages the play in traverse, with audience on both sides so we are brought into the club. Through design and performance, he teases out the secrets behind this play in a way that keeps us constantly looking for clues. Jennifer Tipton's lighting is simultaneously warm and unsettling. A late scene illuminated almost entirely by candlelight is particularly beautiful and frightening, perfectly setting the mood for this campfire tale about the potential future of our republic.
An uncomfortable ring of truth emanates from this story about the breezy acceptance of tyranny, provided it does not interfere with certain bourgeois niceties. Everyone in this story is aware that horrible, violent things are happening outside the upholstered confines of the Talk House, but a mild rhetorical opposition is all they seem willing to muster. We may judge them for their lack of courage, but considering that extrajudicial drone killings (which are not far off from the "targeting" described in the play) have been a part of American policy since the turn of the century, Evening at the Talk House isn't really a disturbing look at our possible near future, but our very real present.