About halfway into Evening at the Talk House, one of the characters, Annette, has a moment, and, in the same move, playwright Wallace Shawn shows his hand. Up until then, we’ve heard a long background monologue written in Shawn’s mannered voice and delivered in an offhand monotone by Matthew Broderick. He introduces himself as Robert, the writer of a forgotten romance with heroic overtones, “Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars,” and introduces the characters, his former collaborators on Midnight, who listen and nod, ensconced in comfortable armchairs, like a polite, silent chorus. He also alludes to the context: New York City in an undefined future, where theater has become extinct, in a country ruled by a “good” but “cruel” and “not particularly brilliant” leader, a certain Mr. Ackerley. Robert and friends have assembled to remember the tenth anniversary of “Midnight,” at the Talk House, a private club that was their post-performance hang-out all those years ago. There is a low buzz of anxiety (“the walls have ears,” Robert mentions matter-of-factly) but friendship and nostalgia set the mood as this exposition ends and the gathering gets underway.
Then Annette (Midnight’s costumer, played like a pit bull by Claudia Shear) shatters it. Her problem is that Dick (a snarky Shawn, as the party’s trouble-fête) has just reported that an acquaintance was recently the victim of a poisoning. This information, shared unexpectedly in polite company, strikes Annette as entirely out of bounds and she demands Dick be thrown out, complaining, “We’re just trying to have a pleasant evening!”
Are we also having a “pleasant evening” at Evening at the Talk House, 100 minutes of progressively darker, more menacing conversation in the provocative political vein that Shawn explored in Aunt Dan and Lemon (1985), The Fever (1990) and The Designated Mourner (1997)? Yes and no.
The pleasures here are shiny and tempting. There’s Broderick in the starring role, who, despite a little girth and grey hair, holds on to his aura as the quintessential smooth operator, and is again, very smoothly, here. There’s also Derek McLane’s cozy, elegantly appointed set, which the audience, clustered close by on arena seating, almost shares with the actors as they nosh on a smorgasbord of beautifully presented snacks. And there is the ensemble, that feels like another reunion – of popular film and TV actors from the 1980s and 1990s – that includes Jill Eikenberry (as The Talk House’s proprietor), her L.A. Law co-star Michael Tucker (as a successful talent agent, Bill), Larry Pine (Midnight’s leading man, Tom) and John Epperson (of Lypsinka fame, as Midnight’s composer, Ted).
We too are drawn in, by pre-show treats served on-set to the audience, but it’s Kool-Aid colored drinks, Swedish Fish and marshmallows for us. This sickly sweet gesture in our direction feels like a nod to lost childhood innocence and we might take it as a taunt: how much can we ingest before our stomachs revolt and we throw up?
This is, on a metaphorical level, the dilemma that the guests at The Talk House must also confront. We only get the broad outlines of the political situation outside this comfortable lair, but it’s clear that democracy is hanging by a thread: the characters bemoan continuous elections and the media has become a shameless purveyor of vacuous entertainment (one show is called “Mouse Chatter”). But that’s only for starters.
Circle back to Annette’s meltdown. Her raging demand that everyone have a good time is highly ironic. The problem is no one sees it that way, and this is where Shawn flips the script from what the characters are doing to what they ought to be telling us.
Indeed, the state outside the walls of the Talk House has arrogated dangerous powers to itself, that include but are not limited to a “Program of Murdering,” as everyone refers to it in blasé tones. The population has lost not only its cultural institutions but also, evidently, its mind. When The Talk House’s waitress, Jane (Annapurna Sriram), boasts of certain, despicable activities for the state, her actions become a topic of casual conversation that strays to the food she ate on her foreign mission and interest among the local population for Robert’s latest TV series. These friends can indeed swallow horror after horror without the slightest indigestion.
Those of us in the audience may start to feel very uncomfortable. If the America that Shawn imagines asks us to suspend our faith in our democracy, its language – that is, the way language can be used to euphemize and rationalize and distract attention – is with us today. The venerable cast lends the weight of experience to their portrayals, as the cooly approving Ted, the disgusted but self-centered Bill, the indifferent Tom, the Janus-faced Robert, the fearful Annette. Dick is the man of the hour, however, a bruised and beaten man who refuses to sink into complacency. Proof that the others have completely surrendered their ideals comes when Nellie begs Robert, and then Tom, to read Midnight’s climatic speech of honor and heroism and doing the right thing; neither can but they jestingly pass the hot potato to Dick, who shames them with his reading.
Unless Shawn is a particularly keen reader of our political culture, predicted its implosion in the last elections, and foresaw the Pandora’s Box it opened, Evening at the Talk House is another scene in his dystopian landscape, with familiar themes and dilemmas and some complex character roles to make these interesting. And yet that Pandora’s Box has been opened, and we can’t watch Evening at the Talk House except in that light. This time the dystopia sounds more prophetic than provocative and the question – at what point does a collective acceptance of lies, become a collective acceptance of the actions behind those lies? – feels like a gauntlet thrown at our feet. Will we drink the Kool-Aid or pick it up?