‘Evening at the Talk House’: Theater Review

Catherine Ashmore
Wallace Shawn in 'Evening at the Talk House'
Sharp political points get lost in this rambling, unfocused ensemble drama.
3/30/2016

Premiering at the National, Wallace Shawn’s first new play in seven years is a dark political farce set in the gossipy backstage world of theaterland.

On paper, a London world premiere for veteran New York actor-playwright Wallace Shawn's new drama looks like a coup for the National Theatre's recently installed artistic director Rufus Norris. But the play itself feels disappointingly half-baked, a muddled mix of murder-mystery and political parable whose verbose sermonizing ultimately lacks clarity or conviction. In the immortal words of Elvis Presley, what's needed here is a little less conversation, a little more action.

Oddly old-fashioned in tone and style, Evening at the Talk House is a sporadically amusing attack on socially disengaged, narcissistic, navel-gazing artists, which risks becoming the very thing it satirizes. That said, the glittery combined track record of Shawn and director Ian Rickson (Jerusalem) should boost audience curiosity, even for this minor addition to the portfolios of both artists. The backing of seasoned Hollywood and Broadway producer Scott Rudin also suggests a New York transfer could be likely, assuming the rising tide of negative London notices hasn't scuppered its prospects.

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A long monologue by former-playwright-turned-TV-writer Robert (Josh Hamilton) sets up the story. Marking the 10th anniversary of his last stage play, Robert reunites with the main cast and crew at their former haunt, a shabby-chic drinking club once favored by artists and theatrical types. In the decade since these eight old friends last gathered, stage plays have fallen from fashion, especially more socially and politically critical dramas. This is largely due to a new hard-line government that favors upbeat TV escapism for the masses over serious culture.

The climate has also become dangerous for angry artists saying unpopular things, as epitomized by former TV star Dick (Shawn himself), who gatecrashes the party covered in bruises from a recent "warning" beating. Dick puts a forced smile on his injuries, but his spiky and charmless personality is clearly at odds with the current regime, which rewards grinning conformists like Robert and his leading man Tom (Simon Shepherd) with lucrative careers. As the reunion starts to swing, the dark divisions behind the blandly cheerful surface banter become evident.

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Evening at the Talk House feels like a companion piece to Shawn's 1997 play The Designated Mourner, which David Hare directed onstage and screen. Both take place in a deliberately vague Anglo-American nation, in an era much like our own. Both are talk-heavy portraits of the boho intellectual class living under a creeping fascist administration in which the lethal elimination of dissent has been normalized to the point of banality. As this play progresses, it emerges that poorly paid actors and theatrical workers are forced to take on second jobs as freelance government assassins, targeting potential enemies both at home and abroad. Most rationalize this dirty work as a distasteful necessity, not a moral challenge.

At its best, Evening at the Talk House functions like a slow-reveal dystopian satire that invites obvious real-world parallels with current public complicity in drone strikes, state security clampdowns and escalating war-on-terror paranoia. But Shawn fails to develop these Kafkaesque ideas very far, preferring to berate his characters in a slightly labored and superior manner. He offers no hint, for example, of how these self-absorbed and compromised artists might resist political pressure to conform, aside from one of them confessing to suicidal feelings late in the play.

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Staged in a single 105-minute act, Evening at the Talk House has its compensations. The set, by multimedia collaborators and experimental filmmakers the Quay Brothers, blends murder-mystery convention with a hint of surrealism: Agatha Christie meets David Lynch. Shawn is a naturally funny performer, drawing on that deep well of tragicomic, sardonic wit often associated with Jewish New Yorkers. His scenes have the nervy, needling, absurdist energy that fuels all great satire. More of his character in monologue mode might have given the play some much-needed bite. Instead he shares out the dialogue, creating too many stilted digressions into inconsequential theatrical gossip.

The play raises some interesting points about the role of art and artists in politically turbulent times. Valid questions, shame about the lack of answers. It evidently did not occur to Shawn or Rickson that all their hand-wringing and finger-wagging could actually be part of the problem, not the solution.

Venue: National Theatre, London
Cast: Wallace Shawn, Josh Hamilton, Simon Shepherd, Sinead Matthews, Naomi Wirthner, Joseph Mydell, Stuart Milligan, Anna Calder-Marshall

Director: Ian Rickson
Playwright: Wallace Shawn
Set designers: The Quay Brothers
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Sound designer: Ian Dickinson
Music: Stephen Warbeck

Movement director: Maxine Doyle
Presented by National Theatre, in association with Scott Rudin

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