Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Wallace Shawn's EVENING AT THE TALK HOUSE presented by the New Group

     I have never been a great fan of Wallace Shawn's work. He seems to take on interesting topics and drown them in language that isn't very dramatic. His works are often better read than seen. There's an interesting, very dramatic idea in EVENING AT THE TALK HOUSE, but the result is, alas, flaccid.
    The setting of the play, set in a dystopian future, is a failing club that has catered to show business types. Tonight it is hosting the reunion of a group of people involved ten years ago in the production of an unsuccessful play written by Robert (Matthew Broderick). From the long speech we hear from the play, some kind of idealistic medieval romance, it sounds quite awful, more Tennyson than anything seen on the modern stage. Robert has moved on to producing and writing a successful sitcom. The rest of the guests gathered for this reunion are cast members, designers and the composer of the show's music. There is an outsider (of course), Dick (Wallace Shawn), a failed actor who seems to be hiding out in the club. Dick has recently been beaten for saying something offensive to some unseen parties.
     Amidst the usual bitchy showbiz talk, another more sinister topic arises. Murder seems to be the stock and trade of this society. Ordinary citizens can be drafted to choose who in other countries can be targeted for assassination. Later we learn that there is also domestic assassination--offend the wrong people and you can be beaten or killed. Harbor someone who has offended the wrong people and your life is in danger. The most frightening thing about this society gone awry is that the violence and killing seems to be accepted by everyone. At one point there is a power blackout and that, too, is taken in stride. Showbiz talk continues. I was reminded of Hannah Arendt's writings on the banality of evil. This is a world where sitcoms have become the opiate for a violent society.
     This should have been an urgent, frightening picture of a terrible society in which people have come to accept and abet violence. It's easy to see what Shawn is doing with all the banal, self-absorbed talk of the tv folks who are complicit in the horror. Even the group singing of Sondheim's "Good Thing Going" makes sense. In theory, this is a good idea. The trouble is that all the dull talk of self-satisfied people is still dull. The horror or disgust we should feel is diluted, not intensified, by all the blather.
     In his long opening monologue (Shawn loves long opening monologues), Robert tells the audience that he no longer has an interest in theatre, in a group of people sitting in a room looking at another group of people, yet he laments the current state of theatre. Eventually we realize he is talking about the future, not the present. You'd certainly never know that theatre is dead from the crowded lobby of the Signature where three successful plays are running or from the Broadway grosses. Shawn has always seen himself as the playwright for an intellectually superior audience that is above the usual theatrical fare. EVENING AT THE TALK HOUSE would have been better if it had some of the elements of trashier theatre--a sense of structure, some suspense, interesting characters. Scott Elliott's production doesn't help. It is slack, lacking any rhythm--not at all typical of Elliott's work. It reinforces the script's weaknesses. The cast does what it can. I felt sorry for Wallace Shawn's Dick  having to read the awful, interminable speech from Robert's play until I remembered that Shawn wrote the damn thing.

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