If you attend Evening at the Talk House, you will be handed your program not when you enter the theater, but as you leave it. During the evening’s less gripping moments—and there are several, along with some delightful ones—you may find yourself wondering why.
Usually, withholding the program is a signal of surprises and secrets in store. In this case, though, I’m not sure what they are. Not the cast, certainly—in fact, we’ve already seen and even interacted with these fine and familiar actors from the start. As the audience enters, they’re chatting away (Jill Eikenberry handed me a glass of sparkling water!). This casual banter, along with Derek McLane’s cozy club room setting, make us eager to be part of the conversation. And in Scott Elliott’s staging, we almost are—the audience sits, tennis-court style, on either side of the stage, with the action tantalizingly just out of reach.
Well, if the secret isn’t the cast, I reasoned, it must be the plot. That alligns with my sense of Wallace Shawn as a playwright and agent provocateur, eager to challenge, confound, and destabilize an audience. (This is very much out-of-sync with his impish, weird-uncle acting persona).
That is, indeed, where the suspense is meant to lie. Outside the nostalgic reunion of theater folks celebrating the 10th anniversary of a play they did together, a grim reality lurks. Even this surprise, though—like much of Talk House—is low-voltage.
What I can say without spoiling anything is that the play has two central threads – the theatrical life, and the ugly brutality of politics. For me, it’s a half-full glass.
The good part, unsurprisingly, is the theater stuff. It is, essentially, the first half of Talk House, and consists largely of two extended monologues: one for Matthew Broderick, playing Robert, a playwright turned TV writer); and another for Wallace Shawn, playing an actor named Dick. You might read it as seeing two sides of Shawn himself—enacted by Broderick, he’s a middle-aged artist who has compromised his career, but also earned a degree of success. (Broderick may seem like an odd doppelgänger for Shawn, but his droll, courtly delivery and burnished comic timing are a good fit.) Dick is older, frailer, and more unglued—not coincidentally, he appears physically bruised.
Shawn the playwright has a wonderful ear for theatrical badinage—he can simultaneously celebrate its charm and skewer its underlying narcissism. The dialogue is full of funny invented details—play titles, plots, and anecdotes that are only slightly sillier than the real thing. It’s a specialized kind of charm, not for everybody—but personally, I could listen to this stuff for hours.
Now and then, especially in Shawn’s monologue, in which he recalls a play with a medieval setting, we detect chinks in the armor. Some of the details don’t add up. And who is the mysterious autocratic leader he keeps referring to?
As long as Shawn keeps the political dimension as a shadowy subplot, it’s compelling. But when it comes to the front burner, all the play’s deft slyness is lost. The second half of Talk House is a blunt, tedious political satire—light-years away in subtlety and point from Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, which it resembles. Shawn wants us to see a connection between theater and totalitarianism—perhaps that theater artists, a notably self-centered bunch, are easily recruited to the dark side? But no convincing case is made.
I’m not sorry I saw Talk House. There’s considerable pleasure in the early scenes, and on some level, it’s enjoyable to watch these terrific theater actors talk about pretty much anything. (In addition to Broderick, Shawn, and Eikenberry, they include Michael Tucker, Larry Pine, Claudia Shear, John Epperson, and Annapurna Sriram). But it is certainly a lot of talk—and ultimately, not much heat.
Evening at the Talk House plays at New York’s Pershing Square Signature Center through March 12. For more information, visit The New Group’s website.