'Evening at the Talk House': Theater Review
A first-rate cast including Matthew Broderick and 'L.A. Law's' Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry appear in Wallace Shawn's dystopian drama receiving its New York premiere.
Wallace Shawn the playwright makes for a stark contrast with Wallace Shawn the actor. As an actor, his primary persona is that of an elfin-faced, cherub-bodied supporting player who is frequently used for comic relief. As a playwright, he’s a deeply thoughtful writer who often presents disturbing dystopian scenarios of futuristic societies marked by totalitarianism and anti-intellectualism. That’s very much the theme of his latest effort, receiving its New York City premiere after a 2015 production at London’s National Theatre. Unfortunately, Evening at the Talk House lives up to its title by being a monotonously verbose exercise whose provocative themes are too muddled to make much of an impact.
The New Group has assembled a top-flight cast for this drama depicting the reunion among a bunch of theatrical types upon the tenth-year anniversary of a play in which they were all involved. That work’s author, Robert (Matthew Broderick), starts off the proceedings with a lengthy monologue in which he introduces us to the other figures meeting at the Talk House, a private club that’s seen better days.
They include the club’s owner/hostess Nellie (Jill Eikenberry) and server/struggling actress Jane (Annapurna Sriram); Bill (Michael Tucker), the producer, now turned successful talent agent; Ted (John Epperson, better known for his drag character Lypsinka), the composer, who now writes advertising jingles; Tom (Larry Pine), the lead actor currently starring in a hit sitcom for which Robert is the head writer; and Annette (Claudia Shear), the wardrobe supervisor, who works as a private tailor for wealthy clients.
And then there’s Dick (Shawn), a former beloved sitcom star fallen on hard times who’s temporarily living at the club after enduring several beatings by “some friends,” which, despite his injuries, he claims to have “enjoyed very much.”
As snacks are served and rambling conversation ensues, we learn that theater has become subordinate to mindless television; that elections are held every three months, although the outcome is always the same; that blackouts occur with disturbing frequency; and that there is an official “Program of Murdering,” which is “popular in the rural areas.” It’s soon revealed that Annette is among those targeting the people “who want to harm us,” and she doesn’t hide her enthusiasm for her role as government assassin.
“We happen to be winning,” Annette says, inevitably calling to mind a certain recently elected president. Later, Jane also reveals that she’s had to make ends meet by killing people in such countries as Nigeria and Indonesia.
At one point, Tom observes, “You have to have some desire, when you’re watching a show, to know what’s going to happen next.” Shawn hasn’t heeded his own advice, since Evening at the Talk House never proves compelling with its vague, futuristic scenario. His understated dialogue becomes quickly tedious, and the oblique storyline doesn’t reach any satisfying conclusion. The playwright has explored this sort of territory several times before, in such works as The Fever and The Designated Mourner, to far more powerful effect. And such digressions as Eikenberry bursting into a rendition of “Good Thing Going,” from Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, seem like filler.
The talented cast fails to breathe much life into their underwritten roles. Director Scott Elliott provides a touch of environmental staging by having the actors mingle with audience members before the show, during which we’re offered snacks of gummy bears, marshmallows and brightly colored sparkling water. It all comes across as very strained and artificial, not to mention as lacking in nutritious substance as the rest of the evening.
Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Matthew Broderick, Jill Eikenberry, John Epperson, Larry Pine, Wallace Shawn, Claudia Shear, Annapurna Sriram, Michael Tucker
Playwright: Wallace Shawn
Director: Scott Elliott
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Jeff Mahshie
Lighting designer: Jennifer Tipton
Presented by The New Group