Wallace Shawn is a playwright not so much interested in the skull beneath the skin as in the guts roiling below the casual suiting. We are animals, Shawn insists, creatures of brute desire and decay. We want sex and food and power. Civilization? Window dressing. In his new play, Evening at the Talk House, Shawn makes these arguments baldly and with uncomfortable aptness (are we all just baskets of deplorables?). But as produced by the New Group, the play digests so easily and un-queasily that it can feel like it was barely there at all.
The opening moments, as directed by Scott Elliott, are somewhat immersive. Audience members mingle with actors while marshmallows and gummies and fizzy drinks circulate on trays. The marshmallows ought to turn to ashes in the mouth as the play unfolds; mostly they taste pretty sweet. Once seats are taken, the playwright Robert (Matthew Broderick) explains the occasion for the gathering, the 10-year anniversary of a notorious flop, Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars. Though the play failed, it attracted the notice of a ruthless politician – and Robert’s star has been on the rise ever since.
But at the Talk House, which is in Robert’s starched description and Broderick’s bleating tones, the “almost-legendary, wonderfully quiet and genteel club, known far and wide at one time for its delicious and generously-sized snacks”, it becomes clear that many of Robert’s former colleagues have fallen on more adamantine times. (This includes Shawn himself, playing an actor in pajamas recovering from an assault.) Several of them have even taken to targeting citizens and foreign nationals for execution, and at least one has worked as a murderer. Also dead: theater. No one misses it much. When the play opened in London late in 2015 – before Brexit, before Trump – many reviewers complained that it was inept and dull. It isn’t. But despite the ways in which world events have dovetailed with is content, it doesn’t have the morally searching qualities of Shawn’s best work, like The Fever and Aunt Dan and Lemon, plays that seduce you with their intelligence and welcome, then rabbit-punch you with visions of your own cowardice and cravenness and complacency.
Evening at the Talk House ought to be a body slam. Instead, it barely beats you up at all. In place of nauseating personal culpability, there’s a memory-play haze haunting the thing, perhaps a consequence of Robert’s long opening monologue that sets the scene. Despite some lovely performances (Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker, especially, and a perfectly cast Broderick) the stakes seem perilously low, which is odd considering that the collapse of civilized society or at the very least an assassination or two threatens.
But this is the way the play – and maybe the world – ends, not with a bang but with a marshmallow.
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