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A CurtainUp Review
Evening at the Talk House
By Elyse Sommer
Given how the new administration has reactivated the best-seller status of dystopian books and dramas (Orwell's 1984 is flying off bookstore shelves, and a and a stage adaptation is coming to Broadway), the New York debut of Evening at the Talk House is certainly well timed.
It starts out as a theatrical version of a drawing room comedy. The setting is the central meeting room of a once popular membership club frequented by theater people. The plot revolves around a group involved with an under-appreciated play called Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars who have gathered at their once favorite hangout to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its opening night. But, after one of Shawn's typically self-indulgently long monologue and some amusing interchanges, the chit-chat and gossip turns dark and scary.
It seems that the world that the disgruntled, has-been actor Dick wishes hadn't changed so much, has just about killed the theater as a viable art form and turned distinctly Orwellian. It's a world in which fear of terrorists has persuaded the most unlikely citizens to sign on to a job creation program whose employees target foreigners for deadly drone attacks. Sometimes the job sends them to far away countries to actually commit the murders. Their willingness to do this kind of work is stoked by government propaganda and the appeal of a steady paycheck.
Mr. Shawn is fortunate to have this New York premiere of his take on the dark side of theater life staged by the New Group, a long time advocate of his work — the less popular ones like Marie and Bruce and The Fever as well as his popular Aunt Dan and Lemon . Scott Elliott, the company's artistic director, who is again at the helm, is fortunate to have Shawn reprise the role he played in London. And both Shawn and Elliott are fortunate to have the American cast headed by Matthew Broderick as Robert, the author of that under appreciated masterpiece.
Mr. Elliott and the entire cast do their utmost to bring out both the humor and horror of Shawn's serio-comedy. But the sly finger pointing at a narrow group within a bigger, ever scarier world doesn't mesh as smoothly and clearly as it should.
Having the cast mill about and chat with arriving theatergoers is obvously intended to make them feel as if they too are guests at the play's titular club. Unfortunately, this is more awkward than immersive. Neither does making Jill Eikenberry and Annapurna Sriram (the club's hostess Nellie and her waitress Jane) hand out drinks and canapes authenticate this attempt at immersive theater. (You might want to read my recently posted article Does ImmersiveTheater Risk Being All Hat and No Cattle?
Once this meet and greet business ends, the entire cast takes its seat in Derek McLane's nicely detailed but unfussy set. The play begins with a lenthy monologue by Broderick. He manages to retain some of his natural charm even as he conveys Robert's pompous, self-satisfaction with his transition from a dead art to successful head writer of a TV sitcom.
That monologue serves as the authorial device to fill us in on what Robert as well as everyone on stage have been doing since the Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars fiasco. It's a good news story for the play's star and producer, Tom (Larry Pine) and Bill (Michael Tucker). Tom is the star of Robert's hit TV show and Bill has done well as a talent agent. Ted (John Epperson) the incidental music composer and Annette (Claudia Shear), the costume designer, have had to apply their talents to more prosaic work (tailoring for Annette, occasional jingle writing gigs for Ted).
As for the Talk House, it's been a struggle to hang in as fewer and fewer people hang out there. But ever cheerful hostess Nellie (Jill Eikenberry) and waitress Annette (Annapurna Sriram) are still on hand to make everybody welcome.
Having each character rise and exit from the room after Robert finishes his update works nicely to pave the way for Shawn's rumpled Dick (he's still wearing pajamas with his sport jacket) to rise from an arm chair. He's the group's outlier and his interchange with Robert is more confrontational than jovial. Of course, everyone will return to let some of the darker happenings surface, especially those in Annette and Jane's life.
Interesting as some of the ideas that come to light are, the gradual shift in tone is rather confusing. Except for Shawn and Broderick, none of the characters assigned to these well-credentialed actors are especially interesting. The always terrific Larry Pine is particularly underused and seems miscast as a glamorous leading man. Jill Eikenberry's Nellie does get a brief turn to energize the party with a rendition of "Good Thing Going from Merrily We Roll Along with the Ted, the former theatrical composer accompanying her on the piano.
There's also a reading from Robert's flop. Unsurprisingly it turns out not to warrant everyone's high opinion of it. Could Shawn have assigned his character to read it as a mea culpa for writing it?
While there are eight instead of ten at this party, there is a touch of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were none in the repeated exits and reentries and the way things turns darker — quite literally so towards the end. That had me wondering if it might not have been a good idea to have one character apply the methods of the government's killer program to some of these self-absorbed people. In short, to not just talk about but do something about this barbarism.
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Evening at the Talk House by Wallace Shawn
Directed by Scott Elliott
Cast: Matthew Broderick (Robert), Jill Eikenberry (Nellie), John Epperson (Ted), Larry Pine (Tom), Wallace Shawn (Dick), Claudia Shear (Annette), Annapurna Sriram (Jane) and Michael Tucker (Bill)
Scenic Design by Derek McLane
Costume Design by Jeff Mahshie
Lighting Design by Jennifer Tipton
Production Stage Manager, Valerie A. Peterson
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes without intermission
The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center's Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street
From 1/31/17; opening 2/16/17; closing 3/12/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 2/11 press preview
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