The Invitation, Brian Park’s new play at the Ohio Theatre, opens mid-dinner party to a collection of middle-aged urban sophisticates. Under the direction of John Clancy, dinner conversation clips along at a pace just short of stylized; within minutes, the banter covers Tchaikovsky and Rodin, London and Machu Picchu. This is the sort of play where characters trade barbs by accusing one another of name-dropping James Joyce. Publicity materials call the production “a revenge comedy” and, as promised, it’s not long before the characters’ jovial cracks sharpen into sly attacks on one another. Marion (Katie Honaker), the hostess of the party, takes sardonic aim at those far away (black people, vegetarians, the retarded) and closer to home (her husband David, played by David Calvitto, a verbose book editor whose own publishing house has recently rejected his own book). Honaker servicably delivers Marion’s remarks but never musters the crackling glee that her glib cruelties seem intended to possess.
When tensions between Marion and David reach a breaking point, they exit with the dirty dishes, momentarily taking leave from their guests: John and Sarah (a well intentioned couple played by Paul Urcioli and Eva van Dok) and Steph (Leslie Farell, as a smart woman whose birthday the dinner party is intended to celebrate, an oddly inconsequential detail). Moments later David returns, drenched in blood (“I edited her! Edited her right out.”)
The revelation of Marion’s bloody end could make for a sharp, darkly funny button to the piece were the play to end right there. While material built into the first scene might merit further development, the subsequent scene fails to deliver. Instead, Urcioli and Farell are made to traipse around the stage covered in blood as Calvitto giddily gushes about Shakespeare, Bellini, and how much he hates his wife. The premise wears thin within minutes; the play lasts much longer.
Despite its lengthiness, the second scene of The Invitation reveals neither depth of character nor increased understanding of the play’s absurdist world. A bizarre through-the-door exchange with a girl scout selling cookies plays out less like an insightful fragment of Americana than an improv comedy premise gone flat. Clancy’s direction fails to carve character development out of the one-note script; throughout the scene, David stays jubilant. Steph stays appalled. John stays affably accommodating.
And Sarah stays in the hall closet: when she panics in response to the bloody events, her husband locks her there, despite (because of?) her shrieking and begging. Then she is all but forgotten. Her absence allows for The Invitation’s attempt at a snappy ending; it also raises serious questions about its treatment of women. That the play is about men who butcher their wives and lock them in closets when they make too much noise is never appropriately addressed; wives are dangerously beside the point.
Somewhere inside The Invitation is an absurdist exploration of what happens when analytical criticism becomes wholly divorced from human connection. But like an uneasy dinner guest, it talks a lot without properly expressing itself.