It’s party time at the Talk House, the kind of hangout people of a certain age or nostalgic bent associate with Greenwich Village watering holes like the White Horse Tavern and the Lion’s Head, where tatty writers schnorred drinks and grubbed smokes from plusher colleagues while woozily embroidering tales of the good old days.
Wallace Shawn’s Evening At The Talk House, a New Group production at the Signature Theatre Center, takes place at the Talk House on the 10th anniversary of a flop called Midnight In A Clearing With Moon And Stars, a play written by Robert (Matthew Broderick) who has, in the years since, settled easily into the life of a successful television writer.
Framing the best performance by Broderick since The Producers, which decidedly was not a flop, Evening At The Talk House plows terrain familiar to us fearful onlookers at The World According Shawn. What begins as an air-kissy gathering of long-parted colleagues quickly morphs into something stinking of social decay and portending calamity. It would be ho-hum, possibly, if it weren’t unfolding in this time and place – and I don’t mean just since November 8.
“I got a call from Ted the other night,” Robert says, launching into a very long and beautifully delivered monologue about the circumstances of the gathering. “That was a surprise. It had probably been five or six years since I’d heard from Ted. Of course, I’d never really – Well, I was about to say I’d never really known Ted that well – but then who have I known well, when you get right down to it, come to think of it? – so I guess I won’t say that. To ‘know someone well’ – I mean, that’s a phrase from another time. That’s an idiotic phrase.”
Robert relates the rather twisted turns of his post-Moon And Stars life when, with the help of some powerful friends, he transitioned into the more lucrative world of television. “Because, what exactly was theater, really, when you actually thought about it? You’d have to say that it was utterly and irreducibly about a small group of humans sitting and staring at another small group of humans — an animal process — an animal process that completely lacked art, not to mention, for my money, charm, and that was fundamentally no less mindless than what dogs do or what cows do, an animal business of sniffing and staring. No one really cared about the sound-track to the event, the words that were spoken – the writer’s role was just to choose whether the cows on stage said Moo or whether they said Moo moo.”
Present at the gathering are Tom (Larry Pine, House Of Cards), the suave star of Midnight who has followed Robert to fame and fortune; Ted (John Epperson), a jingle composer who wrote incidental music for the play; Annette (Claudia Shear) the costume designer who now does “private tailoring”; Bill (Michael Tucker) the producer-turned-talent agent; and the hosts, Nellie (Jill Eikenberry) the proprietress, and Jane (Annapurna Sriram), who serves drinks and hors d’oeuvre.
And then there’s Dick (Shawn), who arrives unshaven, bloodied and disheveled, as if he’s just been rolled in the alley – which in fact he has. Dick was also an actor, admittedly not of Tom’s caliber (though to be honest, he confides, he probably would have been better in the role). “I was beaten, rather recently,” he explains to Robert, pausing. “By some friends, but you see, I actually enjoyed it very much, in the end. Really, it was great. No – I loved it!”
Those words echo later when the conversation oh-so-casually turns to what several in the gathering begin discussing – what they’ve been doing to make ends meet in this era where elections take place every three months, with the same people re-elected, and a “program of murdering” has been instated.” Oh, la.
The program, as it’s delicately called, involves “targeting,” killing people far away or near, with drones, if possible, brute force and hangings, if not. Silently executed from the comfort of your living room. Don’t bother dressing. Why, everybody’s doing it.
“The private tailoring business is not what it used to be, in case you don’t happen to know that, Bill,” Annette says. “Yes, I’m not ashamed of it – quite the contrary. Quite the contrary! Of course I’ve done targeting. Of course I have, like half the people you know.” And remember what Dick said about how much he’d enjoyed being beaten by friends?
And so with just a few well-chosen words, Shawn has elided from the discomfiting escalation of drone warfare under President Obama to the even more terrifying prospects of chaos and unfettered killing in the current atmosphere, a prospect that becomes more chillingly thinkable with each passing day’s news from the West Wing.
This theme – of hideous violence bubbling up under the increasingly brittle veneer of civility – has been an obsession of Shawn’s going back to the Nazi-spooked Aunt Dan and Lemon, and finding its apotheosis in The Designated Mourner and The Fever. It’s a horrific, unsettling worldview, the kind that makes you hunker down in the cab ride home, if you’re well-off enough to afford a cab ride home. Even more frightening, it seems to have been outpaced by the real events Shawn is commenting on, turning satire – fake news – into documentary – real news. It’s no fun, that’s for sure.
Evening At The Talk House loses focus and doesn’t seem to know how to end. That simply adds to the horror factor, however. Because, as Robert might say, who among us really knows how it will end? We can only imagine.