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Evening at the Talk House

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 16, 2017

(clockwise from top) Matthew Broderick, Annapurna Sriram,
Jill Eikenberry, Wallace Shawn, John Epperson,
Claudia Shear, and Michael Tucker.
Photo by Monique Carboni

Theatre is a notoriously chatty medium, and those who create it—and, let's face it, those who watch it—are usually unable to keep their mouths shut. So in approaching Wallace Shawn's play Evening at the Talk House, which just opened at the Pershing Square Signature Center in a production of The New Group, knowing that it's about a cadre of just these types might lead you to believe that it's chock-full of gossip, gab, and gutter-speak. You'd be right, to a degree, but what's far more significant about this deceptive drama is what instead can't be spoken aloud.

Which, sad to say, is practically everything. The "plot" (although it barely qualifies as such) goes something like this. Ten years ago to the night, a play written by Robert, titled Midnight in a Clearing With Moon and Stars, opened—and promptly closed. But it meant something significant to all those involved, so they have decided to spend the anniversary of its opening night at the Talk House, a chummy club that serves drinks and an endless variety of upscale snacks, and encourages not just friendly conversation but genuine community. The group used to come here back in the day, but due to life, hasn't been able to get together for a while. What better time to break bread over words, relive old successes and failures, and look as much to the future as to the past?

If just reading that bores you, I don't blame you, and chances are that learning that the group as a whole beyond Robert (Matthew Broderick) also includes composer Ted (John Epperson), wardrobe mistress Annette (Claudia Shear), producer Bill (Michael Tucker), star Tom (Larry Pine), frustrated actor and bypassed star Dick (Shawn himself), and Talk House proprietress Nellie (Jill Eikenberry) and waitress Jane (Annapurna Sriram) will not sway you. One hundred minutes of blabbing about Robert's apparently ridiculous piece (which, he tells us, "told the story of a powerful king, his loyal sons, and a princess" in "a sort of imaginary kingdom that predated history altogether or stood to one side of it, at any rate) is enough to drive you for the exits before you so much as step foot in the door.

This is not, however, the actual point of Evening at the Talk House. Nor, for that matter, is it especially relevant at all. Shawn abandons specific details about all this nonsense relatively early, and you won't miss them—he has something much deeper and darker in mind. And about that, well, the less said the better. But not just for us: In delving into matters that aren't just political but test what we're willing to accept and what we're willing to ignore, Shawn is forcing us to confront the many things in polite society that we can't—or shouldn't—talk about. Before long, these flood every exchange between the characters until they've entirely consumed the pleasing little trifle we observe early on, and from there, things get bleaker still.

Shawn's sleight of hand in guiding us from organic discussion to enforced silence is a bewitching magic trick that director Scott Elliott has staged at once subtly and to the hilt; both artists prevent us, like the characters, from seeing where we are or where we're going until we're too enmeshed to escape. The physical production is central to the effect: Derek McLane has transformed the theater into an ultra-cozy hangout lodged somewhere between an oak-paneled smoking parlor and the main dining room at Joe Allen (complete with dusty show posters—Docktopia and Ballet for Mixtape were among the new ones to me), and Jennifer Tipton has lighted it with immaculate shadowy care. (The costumes, less evocative but appropriate, are by Jeff Mahsie.)

The problem, though, is that in the end, all the pieces don't come together. Shawn's dramatic digressions are often sloppy, particularly in late dialogue concerning the TV business, and his failure to link them all the way back to his main thesis mutes their impact. The lack of firm definition of the characters doesn't help, either—in the final analysis, it's never as clear as it needs to be exactly what each person contributes to the increasingly disquieting party they're attending.

Worse yet, at least at the performance I attended, most of the actors were still finding their ways into their parts. Pine had what seemed to be such serious line problems, he wasn't able to craft a consistent personality for Tom at all, and Broderick, as he's been wont to do in recent years, defaulted to a garden-variety schlemiel rather than lock onto the character's natural role as the anchor for this at-sea crew (he is, after all, a playwright). Only Eikenberry and Epperson are tight fits, bringing the sort of off-center authority Nellie and Tom need to observe from their positions of ostensible safety in the middle of the pack.

It's Shawn's contention, though, that no one is safe in our present-day circumstances. A wrong utterance, a mistaken glance, even an untoward thought can be the cause of unexpected devastation. Isn't it better, then, to say nothing at all—to preserve what makes you who you are and reduce the risk of danger befalling others, as well? It's not for nothing that everyone who's part of the octet of Evening at the Talk House draws his or her livelihood or liveliness from communication; they all know the value of words. But they're also too willing to turn a blind eye to what can happen when they're stifled. Are we? Shawn doesn't let us walk away without answering that question. If the delivery vehicle could be a lot more polished, the message it thrusts upon us could scarcely be more compelling—or terrifying—than it already is.

Evening at the Talk House
Through March 12
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral