Evening at the Talk House, Wallace Shawn’s insidiously brilliant, humorous, sardonic play, is about human dereliction in the face of a cultural-social-political expansion of inhumanity, genocide and incivility borne on the gradual obviation of the Golden Rule and the creative self. The setting is in a not-too-distant future that resembles our present in tropes, metaphors, hyperbole and dark ironies. These pepper the characters’ offhand remarks as they discuss their lives and catch up with peers in the entertainment and theatrical professions during a reunion celebration at The Talk House.
The production, finely tuned and directed by Scott Elliott and presented by The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center, has a stellar ensemble whose spot-on performances bring a number of chilling messages to us in the “here and now.” The cast led by Matthew Broderick provides the intellectual by-play, with familiar inured reactions and responses to searing social issues intimated during the characters’ reunion.
The Talk House – an ironically named location considering the revelations – is a private club that in its heyday, 10 years before, was a theatrical “hot spot” where celebrities gathered to schmooze and unwind after shows. But the vibrant glory of The Talk House has silted, its once resplendent shine shifting to a dusty, dull fade. Social conditions have devolved, and live theater is practically dead.
The stage is a square, with the audience set on two sides, offering a congenial atmosphere. The room where the action takes place is comfortably appointed with a semblance of stately elegance harkening back to a more “civil” time that we learn has worn down like an archaic timepiece. Entering, the audience is encouraged to take drinks (sugary colored water) and candy (gummies and marshmallows) served by Jill Eikenberry, whom we discover is Nellie, the matron of The Talk House, and Annapurna Sriram as Jane, an actor who works there as a waitress. Both are dressed in their serving outfits and Wallace Shawn enters (in pajamas and a jacket) to schmooze with audience members along with Eikenberry and Sriram.
The agreeable set “in the square,” which the audience briefly shares with the actors, destroys the natural wall between performer and audience member. Our good will has been elicited, as has our complicity and partnership in the play’s events and characters’ admissions: We are observers and participant-confidantes. The set design (Derek McLane) and calming dynamic make for a clever backdrop for the distilled action that follows; our emotions are soothed and lulled into acceptint anything, like the characters do with respect to their. We have been engaged in a way that encourages us to feel less spiked by the nature of the characters’ “talk,” which in a number of instances are confessions of crimes against humanity in the guise of legality and safety with no justice.
An excellent Matthew Broderick as Robert unfolds the complexity of his character, an ironic, insightful, equivocal, caddish, diffuse, emotionally disaffected playwright. He begins his monologue with the backstory, discussing why he and the individuals (present in tableau) are at the club for this celebration. Ten years before, his unsuccessful Midnight in a Clearing With Moon and Stars was performed with these individuals. We learn later that Robert’s play’s subject is ironic given the larger metaphors of Shawn’s play, and that the public didn’t like it, though he and the others enjoyed working on it. He has moved on to successful television writing and is now working on a vapid series which he justifies as having merit.
The characters portrayed by the multi-talented ensemble – which also includes John Epperson, Larry Pine, Claudia Shear, and Michael Tucker – are cuttingly and drolly described by Robert, who is philosophical about not knowing these individuals or perhaps any individuals well. He alludes to the political times and a presidential-type leader, but opaquely, and we gather he is forced to be that way because the oppressive society monitors its citizens.
During Robert’s humorous monologue, we have been lured into trusting his perspective and have become his confidantes. We are less predisposed to judge him. This is a clever device, as Robert is an unreliable narrator and we should question and look beyond his statements, especially those about himself, cued in by his introductory cryptic remarks.
Nevertheless, his monologue hardens us to approach the evening’s festivities by incorrectly assuming there will be very few surprises. Shawn turns this notion on its head as the ensemble enters the room. As they talk, the strikes to our consciences begin.
The first jab occurs when Robert is shocked to see actor Dick (the always superb Shawn). Though Dick says he’s fine after all these years, his appearance shows his life and the culture have treated him ill. His face is bruised, and this once successful man has gained weight and is obviously in emotional, psychical, financial and soulful alcoholic dislocation. From their conversation, we learn the first of the playwright’s clues about how human beings are devolving, based upon their own participation in the culture and society which they apparently do not oppose.
Dick matter-of-factly says that his “friends” beat him up. The statement has humorous, ironic overtones but is vitally disturbing as he also implies that he had it coming to him because he is annoying. We are struck by Dick’s honesty and the poverty of his “friends.” Why are they still his friends? Why has he not pressed charges or sought to sue them for assault? This frightening situation is not a new phenomenon; real individuals select extremely toxic and poisonous “friends,” even spouses, as if predisposed to a self-mutilating kind of masochism. In the play, is this an unusual occurrence, or a particular trend in this futurist society? Or is verbal and physical abuse “just” characteristic human nature to which we have become numbed? It’s all of it, Shawn reveals.
The themes of toxic, brutal relationships encouraging inhumanity toward oneself and others as culturally learned behavior is a vital theme in the play. Another is that it’s human nature to ignore the significant signs of deterioration happening in our lives and souls, not confronting them until too late.
And so it goes. The characters celebrate. Gossipy chatter flows along with the alcohol and the trays of shrimp cocktail and other luscious tidbits. In their “talk” Shawn emphasizes how and why there is encroaching chaos and darkness in this evening with its fun and camaraderie, to be the last evening of its kind for everyone.
Theirs is a motley group of once productive and successful theater people, now in a ditch following the decline of live theater. There is no work; plays that are produced pay nothing (reminiscent of elements of our current and future state of theater). It is clear from their discussion that their society’s sociopolitical dynamic has darkened the theater’s lights, created blackouts, and switched off general human decency. Wittingly or unwittingly, these characters are an integral part of all that. Another trope Shawn includes is the ironic question: For a culture and society in the abyss, what need is there for live arts when there is mass media and TV? Robert and Tom (Larry Pine) are successfully employed in TV, though they have compromised their integrity as artists in the unregenerate, non-creative “la la land.”
Revelations thicken. The characters, except Robert, actor Tom, and producer Bill (Michael Tucker), have had to jettison their creative selves. To survive they have joined the trending, popular program of targeting, a euphemism for murdering. Ted (John Epperson), Annette (Claudia Shear), and Jane (a very fine, heartfelt performance by Sriram), who have targeted, speak about their actions with a blindness that conveys soul death. One is shocked not only because it’s justified with cloudy, legal logic, but because it’s spoken of with a complete lack of emotion or empathy. Annette analogizes murdering with going to the bathroom. In other words these former artists are now removing the waste from the population (they target in other countries) for a paycheck.
This is an incredibly sardonic parallel: artists as murderers. Shawn also suggests a number of powerful themes about theater/life, the arts, art’s value to nurture the soul, the acceptance of destroying others through direct killing (e.g. drones) or indirectly (pollution, toxins in food and water), and much more. Targeting has even become a pleasure that others watch in murdering TV programs in this nightmare society, along with poisoning deaths and bizarrely cruel killings that are happening to people they know, some effected by close “friends.”
In one way or another all of the characters are swimming in a sea of lead, fast tracked toward death. Though one character wishes it will be soon, only time will tell who is next among them.
This is a terrific must-see production that makes for a thrilling, terrifying entertainment. Evening at the Talk House runs until 12 March at the Pershing Square Signature Center.