Evening at the Talk House
by Wickham Boyle
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Feb 17, 2017
I have seen many of Wally Shawn’s plays from the tiny to the monumental. I have attended them as I had friends and theater colleagues who were involved in the productions. I often felt I might not be bright enough to fully understand all the nuance, intellectual excursions, sexual innuendos and comedy that inhabited his plays like “Aunt Dan and Lemon,” “Our Late Night,” “The Designated Mourner,” “The Fever,” or “Marie and Bruce.” But I persisted, as I was always challenged and provoked. “Evening at the Talk House” is no different.
The cast is stellar and the work opens with a cocktail party in progress. As we enter audience members are offered sweets and a cocktail resembling either Windex or a coral-colored weak version of Tang. We shuffle in, and are not given programs, (I usually like that as there it eliminates rustling, but sometimes as a reviewer I like to know who is doing what to whom.)
The actors amble off except Wallace Shawn, looking as if he’d been recently beaten, wearing pajamas and a tweed sport coat. He sits to the side and Matthew Broderick, in a too-tight velvet jacket, begins a very long monologue, basically telling us what will happen.
We are at an inn called the Talk House. We are there for a reunion of sorts to celebrate the tenth anniversary of a play written by Broderick’s character Robert. The speech is long and nearly mind-dulling. Again, is this the purpose; to lull us into thinking that the entire evening is about exploring the complaints and indulgent musings of another privileged, middle-age, white man?
The work continues with a discourse between Shawn’s character Dick, (honestly, no one can be named Dick without some sinister side to him, right?) and Robert. It seems at one point that the aging Dick was in Robert’s circle, but they haven’t seen each other in years. Robert abandoned theater work, bemoaning that as an art form it is nearly dead. This elicits titters from a live audience.
Robert moved from theater to television and during this play everyone name-drops silly pretend shows like “Mouse Chatter” and the names of fictitious producers, writers, and actors, which must have been such a blast to invent. Dick begins his monologue revealing to Robert that his bruises are the result of a beating he received at the hands of his friends. He says that it wasn’t unpleasant and he enjoyed much of it.
They both keep intoning. “Where are the old days? They used to be great.” This is certainly a parody on the Trumpian notion of make anything great again, meaning, bring back the old days when straight white men were in power and held in a place of undeserved reverence.
As the two former colleagues banter, the rest of the party arrives. There is Tony, the always dry, witty Larry Pine who has been in Shawn’s work since the get-go and was an original member of Andre Gregory’s groundbreaking Manhattan Project. Tom is now a famous actor and a beloved TV star.
Jill Eikenberry and her actual husband Michael Tucker play Nellie the innkeeper and Bill, a well-heeled producer. The cast includes John Epperson as Ted, a composer from the play being feted. Many viewers know Epperson as his stunning drag character Lypsinka. It was a treat to see him with just a hint of eyeliner and his own lanky self, holding court both at the piano and doing some campy acting.
The cast is rounded out by Claudia Shear, a performer who wears many hats including a writer and actor; and finally the only young, non-white, cast member, Annapurna Sriram, who works with Jane the innkeeper and reveals plenty of secret talents as the party heats up.
At first the play seems like an investigation of sophomoric indulgence regarding older, white, privileged, rich folks assessing their lives as swathes of things gone marvelously well, or a tumble into heinous failure. But as the platters of shrimp cocktail and towering cheese trays are consumed and cocktails morph from scotch to champagne, a quiet dystopic trope invades and like a body snatcher appears, and slinks back into a candlelit discussion of who slept with whom, who is crazy and oh yes, by the way, who has signed up to be either a murderer or a “targeter.”
The admission by Annette, the former costume designer, that what she really does for her living is “target” those who should be eliminated. She believes she is making her country safe by having those she deems dangerous in Malaysia or Indonesia killed for the greater good. It is the biggest game version of collateral damage ever imagined and it is chilling. And if you dozed off, like some of the folks snuffling around me, you might have missed this first militaristic confession. You see the play then closes ranks and we again talk about TV shows and who is alive or dead.
And then the darkness descends. Ted the piano man announces that he too dabbles in working as a targeter and while it brings good money, he also feels he is helping his country. You don’t need, as Dylan, postulated, “a weatherman to see which way the wind blows.” This can easily be the intellectualized, dramatized extension of Trump’s exclusionary politics.
In reality we have: the wall, the travel ban, the ginning up of hatred of one group against another and the politics of fear of the brown people vs. the bring back the real America, white folks. We all see it everyday and it is augmenting.
So this play, written before the Trumpian rise and premiered in London in fall 2015, sensed what might be a plausible arc of fear leading to the murder of anyone we deem dangerous. And why wouldn’t regular underemployed folks not take up the mantle of murder in the name of protectionism and safety?
We learn that the only one in the group who actually has stuck targets with poison pins is the youngest member of the group. In a stage lit only by candles, we see young Jane and rich Robert huddled drunk on the couch talking about their affair, which seems as if it might have tended closer to rape. Robert recalls it as a wonderful interlude and yet Jane says it was horrible and she now only thinks about killing herself. They embrace. And Jane continues to ramble on about suicide.
Off stage we hear cries from Nellie. They are a rhythmic patter, which earlier we learned were the specific death rattle of a new disease attacking many in this thespian circle. The screams mount and yes of course we learn that right there in the very safe space of the Talk House, where the table is littered with crystal and a celebratory cakes, the ever kind and generous Nellie is dead. Lights out.
The cast takes a bow, each holding a votive candle and we walk out to be greeted by our programs. The evening is neither uplifting nor a place to forget about the horrible swirl that is our personal political caldron of late, but as usual Shawn’s work does provide grist for every brain cell you have and then asks you to look for a few more.
“Evening at the Talk House” runs through March 12 at The Signature Theater, 480 W 42 Street. For tickets or information, call 212-244-7529 or visit http://www.thenewgroup.org/evening-at-the-talk-house.html