By Wallace Shawn
Directed by Scott Elliott
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“Well — in any case, the play hadn’t been terribly well-liked by the public, and it wasn’t a success, but quite a few people had enjoyed it quite a bit, including, interestingly, a certain Mr. Ackerley, who not long afterwards began to take a more and more prominent place in our national life, which, I’d have to admit, was not un-helpful to me when certain lovely prizes were awarded several years later.” – Robert
Imbedded in this lengthy monologue is important foreshadowing that could easily be missed as the audience attempts to keep track of the myriad of topics covered by playwright Robert (Matthew Broderick) as he revels in the success of his last play “Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars” as he waits for members of his former cast and crew in the central meeting room of The Talk House, an old-fashioned, understated small club frequented by theatre professionals in the time when the theatre was a relevant institution. Robert shows up at Nellie’s (Jill Eikenberry) Talk House at the behest of Ted (John Epperson) who “composed some incidental music for [the] play [he’d] written a dozen years ago, or so.”
The seemingly innocent gathering of former friends is the “stuff” of Wallace Shawn’s intriguing and dense “Evening at the Talk House” currently running at the New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center’s Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre. As the evening progresses, it becomes clear that there have been “sides” taken since the group worked together on Robert’s play. The playwright carefully exposes what each character has been involved in and these revelations are often startling and disturbing. Under Scott Elliott’s smart and conscientious direction, the cast uniformly explores the depth of each character, delineates the character’s conflicts, and successfully helps to move the plot forward.
It is difficult to share that plot without a spoiler alert. However, it is important to disclose some of what happens at the Talk House during this reunion. Why does Daphne Albright drop dead while having dinner over at Le Grand Plaisir? Dick (Wallace Shawn) tells the group that “at a certain point she started making these weird noises, these weird sounds like “Erk erk erk” — and then — she died!” Bill (Michael Tucker) and Ted are reminded the same thing happened to Nestor Crawley. Why did Dick’s friends beat him up and why is he staying upstirs at the Talk House? What are Annette (Claudia Shear) and Jane up to that results in the death of “suspicious” people worldwide? What are those “lists” they compile? What is everyone so afraid and threatened by “all those people?” Why is Robert so judgmental and does he have a list like Annette’s? The answers to these questions prove to make for engaging theatre, although “Evening at the Talk House” is not without complications.
For example, the “pre-show” Talk House is problematic. Jill Eikenberry and Annapurna Sriram (Nellie and Jane) are on set as the audience enters: Ms. Eikenberry serves “drinks” in plastic tumblers and marshmallows while Ms. Sriram replenishes the supply of these goodies. The rest of the cast ambles in and interacts with each other uncomfortably. Some, like Larry Pine (Tom) head into the audience with a tray of marshmallows and some friendly chatter. This attempt to include the audience before the show is unnecessary since the structure of Mr. Shawn’s play includes the audience throughout: the fourth wall is repeatedly broken drawing the audience not only into the action of the play but into the sphere of complicity of the play’s dystopian themes.
It is this matrix of themes that are the strength of Mr. Shawn’s work and the rich enduring questions the play raises relevant to these themes. “Talk House” exposes a time when no one knows anyone well and loyalty seems to be an outdated concept. There is vague reference to a tyrannical leader (Mr. Ackerley) and to a time when personal freedoms have eroded. In his opening monologue, Robert reports that “Walls have ears — as do floors, ceilings, windows, doors, plates, cups spoons, forks, and come to think of it, other human beings, if we’re compiling a list.” The reference to today’s political climate is obvious and deeply disturbing. This consonance with the present makes “Talk House” an important conversation as freedoms seems to disappear daily.