Spoiler Alert: This review contains what some may consider spoilers (and others may not) as some aspects of plot twists are discussed out of necessity. Proceed at your own risk.
by JK Clarke
To expect anything less than a contemplative, introspective think-piece from a Wallace Shawn play is a fool’s errand. Though he’s well known for iconic roles in pop culture films from The Princess Bride (1987) to Clueless (1995), Mr. Shawn is first and foremost represented by talkative intellectual works like the 1981 film My Dinner With Andre (which he co-wrote with Andre Gregory) and plays like Marie and Bruce (1978) and Aunt Dan and Lemon (1985) which feel like more serious early Woody Allen films. Shawn, who self-identifies as a socialist, has been a vocal pacifist and outspoken critic of recent conflicts in the Middle East. So, it’s no surprise that his latest play, Evening at the Talk House (2015)—directed by The New Group’s Scott Elliott and playing through March 12 at The Pershing Square Signature Center—is a heavy-hearted allegorical examination of our military policies and fear-based domestic attitudes towards “terrorism.”
The play begins innocently enough. A group of actors and a playwright have reunited to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their play, Midnight in a Clearing With Moon and Stars. The somewhat pretentious title tips us off to the sort of self-satisfied quasi-intellectuals assembled. The playwright, Robert (a forthright Matthew Broderick who brings to mind Jeff Goldblum, with his halting speech and intensely-laid-back comportment), is the type of person who will give full discourse to the mundane, but nonetheless make it interesting. He’s our chorus of sorts, arriving at the Talk House (an old fashioned club not unlike The Players on Gramercy Park catering to actors and artists) and explaining in an almost too-lengthy, background heavy monologue the purpose of the evening. His speech is a bit of a shaggy dog: we’re lulled into thinking this is life-as-usual and that we’re watching a bunch of actors discuss their successes and failures in the years since their great moment together on stage. To wit, upon arrival audience members, made to be complicit in the affair, are offered colorful, non-alcoholic refreshments and whimsical hors d’oeuvres. Foreshadowing? Perhaps.
Despite the unexpected presence of Dick (Wallace Shawn)—a washed up, alcoholic, once-famous actor who has recently been beaten about the face . . . “by some friends, but you see, I actually enjoyed it very much, in the end. Really, it was great,” he explains to Robert—the evening, bathed in nostalgia, goes along swimmingly, with fond reminisces, some petty arguments and backhanded compliments. But in a twist worthy only of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, Annette (Claudia Shear as a lonely cat-lady type) drops a bomb: she works with the government’s Program of Murdering, targeting people in other nations to be executed as a means of keeping terrorism at bay. She compares the job to the daily routine of disposing of excrement in a toilet. Whoa. While the audience attempts to digest this, Annette justifies her actions, proud, and proclaims that more people are involved in the program than they realize. And it turns out she’s right. Others assembled here, from the demure serving girl (also a fellow actor) Jane (Annapurna Sriram) to Ted (John Epperson) the actor/pianist who seems as nonplussed about the program as he does about plinking out familiar melodies (which Epperson does beautifully, as is his wont) on the piano as the evening’s mood music. But the murdering program is even worse than it seems, for it not only conducts extra-judiciary executions, but predictive assassination, killing those who “might” do us harm: “We’re targeting people who present a serious danger,” Ted explains to a taken aback Bill (Michael Tucker), “We’re applying a list of criteria to people.”
Evening at the Talk House is sure to cause discomfort in the audience, because it’s an indictment of us all. In the spirit of the Andrew Nichols film Good Kill (about an American military drone operator with a crisis of conscience) as well as World War II era literary examinations of dystopian societies in the grips of totalitarianism (e.g. Sartre’s No Exit and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon), the play lays out the easy banality of murder and fear alongside the notion that people will do anything for money, even in only slightly difficult economic times. While some find this sort of engagement intellectually challenging, others would rather not be faced with what is really a troubling moment of forced reflection. Either way, it’s a well performed and superbly written piece on Derek McLane’s gorgeously cozy club room set that sneaks up behind the viewer before seizing him by the throat.
Evening at the Talk House. Through March 12 at The Pershing Square Signature Center (The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street between Ninth and 10th Avenues). www.thenewgroup.org
Photos: Monique Carboni