Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Review: Let's Have a Party

By Michael Block

In Wallace Shawn's Evening at the Talk House, a group of theatrical vets arrive at the titular haunt to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of a production they worked on. But as the small talk subsides and the truth unravels, we see that the world within is not necessarily the world we know. Presented by The New Group, Evening at the Talk House is a peculiar piece to say the least.
Robert arrives at the Talk House, a familiar stomping ground to reunite with some old collaborators. To all their surprise, Dick, an abhorred actor, has been seeking refuge at the Talk House thanks to the generous heart of owner Nellie. As the night grows longer, the individuals catch up revealing their new endeavors, including, well, offing people. And soon we understand that this world is not really ours but a dystopian universe where the disliked are removed. Wallace Shawn has concocted a play that will get you to scratch your head, if only to wonder if this future could actually be ours. But this big reveal of new reality is quite underwhelming. The shock is more like a prick. It seems to just pass by with no impact. Sure, this is their normal but it's not ours. It's coincidental that this play is a very talky one, causing it to collapse into itself. The play happens to be quite passive, most of the character development occurs through stories of the past. And it starts to become tedious. The anecdotes that the characters serve up are distant to the audience. There's not really a connection to the stories due to unfamiliarity. It's one thing to watch the characters muse themselves with the past if it develops their arcs, but it seldom does so.
photo by Monique Carboni
The stacked company floats through the text easily. Though some of the characters are one dimensional, they all find the nuances, even through the mingling prior to the show. For example, you learn more about John Epperson's Ted as he stands firm and strong observing on the landing than you do through text and song. The most well-rounded and interesting character in Shawn's play is Jane played by Annapurna Sriram. Sriram is a star of tomorrow. Taking on the actor turned assassin, Sriram gives Jane depth that's not present anywhere else in the play. We don't learn much about Jane until her private interaction with Robert. Matthew Broderick takes a low-key approach to the character until he reconnects with Sriram’s Jane. And then he bursts. Broderick's Robert is an inceptor of information. He spends much of the time listening and watching. Broderick is able to keep this passive objective active. If you watch him keenly, his wheels are spinning. Dick is a mystery to the other guests. Why is he in the condition he is in and why is he there? Wallace Shawn plays into the intrigue yet there's little sympathy for Dick. What we learn about him is often through others so how could we not believe that he deserves what he gets. As Nellie, Jill Eikenberry is beautifully angelic. Clinging onto a memory of the good times, Eikenberry embraces the caretaker role.
Directed by Scott Elliott, symmetry was the name of the game. Mirrored in the intimate scenic design by Derek McLane, Elliott’s stage pictures are pleasing but it’s redundant. There’s not much else to do aside from sit and chat and drink. McLane designed a room that was welcoming and comfortable. It has a modern vintage charm through the furniture and the theatrical posters that line the walls. For the majority of the play, the lighting from Jennifer Tipton was simple and realistic. But when the lights go out and the candles become the sole source of light, adding hints of theatrical light create a strong ambiance.
The weirdness that is Evening at the Talk House is not for those who like answers. This play is all about the vagueness. But the biggest question that never gets answered is what were in the those pre-show drinks and why were they serving marshmellows and gummi worms?