Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

The Engagement Party
Hartford Stage
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Also see Fred's review of Miller, Mississippi


The Cast of The Engagement Party
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
The Engagement Party, in a world premiere production at Hartford Stage through February 3rd, crackles with tension by way of Samuel Baum's superlative scripting. Intensely personal, the drama escalates throughout this 85-minute piece. Director Darko Tresnjak knows when and how to encourage his eight actors to accelerate. With precisely important production elements augmenting, this play is both fiery and insightful.

Josh (Zach Appelman) and Katherine (Beth Riesgraf) are tossing their own party to celebrate their engagement. Set in 2007, they live in a swanky, artsy, and fairly opulent Park Avenue apartment on New York City's Upper East Side. Alexander Dodge's eye-catching design demonstrates the splendor a hedge-fund man can afford. The combined living and dining area is glossy yet comfortable and a precisely modern chandelier hangs above a wooden table. The set later revolves to reveal a sumptuous kitchen that combines stainless steel appliances with white up-and-down cabinetry. Matthew Richards' detailed lighting serves the production very well.

Kath's parents arrive: Gail (Mia Dillon) suffers from an illness but she she is still a caring mother; Conrad (Richard Bekins) is a well-heeled man with conservative viewpoints. Haley (Anne Troup) is a researcher looking for a job, and her husband Kai (Brian Lee Huynh) has known Josh for quite some time. Haley and Kai have one child at home and allude to the babysitter. Alan (Teddy Bergman) teaches at Columbia University and, not surprisingly, leans politically leftward. The last and loudest entrance is made by Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), an extroverted Italian American who goes back to very early childhood days spent with Josh in Canarsie. Johnny wears (to understate) a boldly colored shirt.

For a time, everyone gets reacquainted. One or another of the contingent shares a memory and it is oftentimes (aside from Gail or Conrad) of a specific moment at college or that era. Kath was and is pretty, the self-described "shiksa," and more than one man had his eye honed toward her. Josh is the fortunate winner of her hand.

Just now, Katherine wears her ring of many diamonds. It is a piece of jewelry about which she and Josh converse—and show off. It wows various attendees. And then, suddenly, it is gone. Kai was the last to see and have it; he explains that he placed it on the dining room table. This occurs somewhere, give or take, around midpoint of the production. The performance, wisely, runs straight through, without intermission. Nothing should interfere with intensity and two person mini-scenes in the kitchen. Various character combinations find themselves in retreat there for sometimes ultra-emotive and even anger-producing conversation. Yes, this is sometimes about the missing ring, but there's much more in the offing.

During the earliest portion of the show, it becomes clear that Sam Baum is a singularly gifted writer who drives his dialogue forward. He co-authored, for HBO, "The Wizard of Lies," featuring Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff. His other writing credits are similarly impressive and the success of The Engagement Party begins with his acute, penetrating text. He brings conflict, increasing hostility, and incisive characterization.

Tresnjak is a very bright and versatile interpreter/director. His scope is wide, as his directorial triumphs have included musicals, Shakespeare, opera and more. This time, he works with an electric ensemble of actors. Each has a turn to push and then sequences to step back and briefly listen. Tresnjak knows when to prod and encourage—and, also, when to enable space for performers to create. This is his final season as Artistic Director at Hartford Stage.

Appelman, who brought a terrific Hamlet to Hartford Stage a while back, personifies Josh as strong, passionate, and cognizant of his past. He wants this party for his willowy and elegant future wife to be a winner and he will not stop. Each of the invitees is played by a disciplined and convincing actor. No one nails his character more fully than Murphy as audacious yet endearing Johnny. Expletive filled, he, nevertheless, cares deeply. Johnny cannot help, with his deep New York accent intact, but wear his feelings for everyone to see if not share. It is quite a performance.

The Engagement Party grabs hold early and does not relinquish its grip. It's a seat-squirming experience and top-flight theater.

The Engagement Party, through February 3, 2019, at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford CT. For tickets, call 860-527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.


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