In 2015 the New Group staged Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur, a brutal vision of depravity amid the detritus of a wrecked civilization. Now the same company, under the same director, Scott Elliott, is presenting Wallace Shawn’s Evening at the Talk House, a more subdued yet insinuating take on a society heading in the same direction.
This time the atmosphere is vastly different. Upon entry, audience members may mingle with the actors on Derek McLane’s homage to a private club, the “Talk House” of the title—tan leather sofa, gray side chairs, a teal hassock, and lights in crystal cylinders on the end tables give it a cozy ambiance. One may be offered a cocktail (variously colored seltzer waters) by the slender Jill Eikenberry, clad in a white blouse and apron, who will shortly become Nellie, the proprietress of the hideaway.
Evening at the Talk House begins leisurely. It’s the 10th anniversary of a play written by Robert (a staid Matthew Broderick), and he explains the reunion in a long opening monologue. Some of the participants in that production—direly named Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars—are gathering to catch up. There is the affable Tom (Larry Pine), who starred in Robert’s play and has the lead now in a popular TV series that Robert writes called Tony and Company. Annette (Claudia Shear) was the wardrobe mistress, and John Epperson’s dapper Ted, the show’s “poor old-fashioned composer,” contributed incidental music. Bill (Michael Tucker) was Midnight’s producer, and Jane (Annapurna Sriram), a waitress now at the Talk House, was in the play, but her acting career never took off.
The unexpected guest at the party is Dick (Shawn himself), wearing pajamas and sporting a massive facial bruise. He explains the latter: “I was beaten, rather recently, by some friends, but you see, I actually enjoyed it very much, in the end. Really, it was great.” Thanks to Nellie’s generosity, he is recuperating in a spare upstairs room kept for patrons who over-imbibe.
Over hors d’oeuvres served by Nellie, each character talks about the intervening years, yet there’s an occasional jarring comment, and one of the earliest hints may go by unnoticed. Speaking about theater and a former critic, Robert laments its decline: “I’m certainly not going to complain because statistics say that the theatre-going impulse has declined substantially since Walter Barclay took his last breath—or had it taken from him, if you believe those theories.”
Gradually it becomes apparent that in the outside world hostile forces are in play, and that some kind of social breakdown is in progress. In fact, some of the old chums are practitioners of mass murder, or “targeting,” against the country’s enemies. The concerns of the Talk House—theater, music, conversation, good food—are irrelevant to a civilization spiraling downward.
In spite of occasional slow spots, Shawn is masterly at writing literate, even poetic, dialogue. (Shawn doesn’t own a television; the written word is his meat and potatoes.) And he’s adept at making sly digs: late in the play Dick reads an amusing excerpt from Midnight that makes it clear Robert’s play was some Game of Thrones nonsense. Even so, Shawn’s celebration of theater as communication and connection, as vital to civilization, is an elegiac counterpoint to the enormity of the assassinations. If at times his points—the idiocy of television, the decline of articulate conversation, the coarsening of humanity—are familiar, the leisurely world he puts on stage is both relaxed and deeply unsettling. Dick’s cheerful acceptance of his beating, rather than resentment of it, is even more disturbing in retrospect.
None of this is news—Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone and Alan Hruska's Ring Twice for Miranda, both currently playing, feature dystopian outlooks. Yet Shawn provides one of the most sugar-coated atmospheres to hear this cautionary tale, until the civilized refuge suddenly plunges into darkness. (Jennifer Tipton is responsible for the impressively diverse lighting.) Ultimately, though, what makes Evening at the Talk House so memorable is less the shock of ordinary people blithely engaging in murder, but the prospect of an entire civilization facing its demise.
Wallace Shawn’s Evening at the Talk House plays through March 12 at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 W. 42nd St. between Ninth and Tenth avenues). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and at 8 p.m. Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, visit thenewgroup.org.