by Ryan Leeds
Have you ever been caught at a cocktail party with someone who prattles on about people and events and in the middle you think to yourself, “Where are they going with this and what are they even talking about?” The chatty speaker continues the garrulous conversation and assumes that you know exactly who he/she is referencing, but in all honesty, you haven’t a clue. Eventually, you lock into a detached, hypnotic glaze of apathy. Then, your mind drifts to the hors d’oeuvres and as you glance down at your empty glass, you silently pray for the proper moment when you can politely excuse yourself for snacks and a refill.
This is primarily the same response I had at various points throughout playwright and actor Wallace Shawn’s play Evening at the Talk House, the starry Off Broadway offering from The New Group and director Scott Elliott.
Shawn’s blurry examination on the state of theater and morality takes place in what Robert (Matthew Broderick) describes as “the almost-legendary, wonderfully quiet and genteel club, known far and wide at one time for its delicious and generously-sized snacks, some of them pleasantly sautéed, some delightfully freezing cold, all rather charming and unexpected.” The inordinate description could economically be summarized as “an old hangout with good food.” This is just one example of Shawn’s excessive musings, spoken near the top of the show during Robert’s 9-page opening monologue.
Robert and his former colleagues have gathered at The Talk House for a reunion. Ten years prior, Robert wrote “the not-terribly-successful theatrical masterpiece Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars.” Now, they have all come back to their cherished haunt to discuss the show, their pasts, and their socio-political differences. Nellie (Jill Eikenberry) is the warm and caring manager at the now out of fashion club, while Jane (Annapurna Sriram), a once promising actress who starred in Robert’s play, waits tables there. Annette (Claudia Shear) served as the show’s wardrobe supervisor and is currently a freelance tailor. Bill (Michael Tucker) produced the play and has gone on to become a talent agent. Tom (Larry Pine) is Robert’s golden boy who starred in his play and is now a huge television star. The venue location was chosen by Ted (John Epperson), a man whose life led him to compose advertising music. Ted provided the music for Midnight and throughout Evening at the Talk House and lends his beautiful piano skills in a few reflective moments of song. Epperson, who was once the rehearsal pianist for the American Ballet Theater and created the popular female impersonation persona Lypsinka, creates an appropriately reflective and sweet, understated performance.
As patrons enter the theater for Evening at the Talk House, the talented cast is already onstage, mingling with one another and the audience. As we took our seats, my friend leaned over and asked, “Is Wallace Shawn wearing pajamas?” Indeed he was. Shortly thereafter, we learned why from Robert. Shawn’s character, Dick, was once a well-known actor, appearing in Midnight and the hit television series Carlos and Jenny but has become a washed-up, overweight, alcoholic whom people have discounted and/or disposed. Dick has taken up temporary residency in a room above the Talk House and stumbles into the soiree wearing a battered sport coat and loungewear. It becomes clear that the working relationship between Robert and Dick was always strained and neither is particularly thrilled to be in each other’s company.
As the night unfolds, comments are made regarding the lack of plays that are now being produced, the support that is waning for them and a general longing for the way things used to be. In Shawn’s typical writing style, he later drifts into absurdist territory as his characters pose philosophical questions on who should live and who should die. Annette reveals that she earns extra money “targeting,” a practice where lists are reviewed and she “selects the individuals who need to be killed.” Jane is also involved in the practice.
It’s no huge revelation that Shawn would offer commentary on the topic of human extermination. Given his participation in the controversial Jewish Voice for Peace and his pro-Palestinian support, he poses a crucial question about who should decide the value of human life. To that end, I tip my hat. All too often, liberal voices who espouse compassion and love, opt to silence opposition. I applaud his bold choice to portray both sides of the issue. Still, it’s not clear what he is trying to convey: Is Evening at the Talk House about the death of theater or debating the deaths of individuals? In order to make an impact, it should be one or the other and much of the extraneous chatter should be trimmed. As it stands, this is one evening that is still trying to talk its way toward an intellectual bullseye.
Evening at the Talk House
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through March 12
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theatre journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.