Few plays begin with more gracious verve than Wallace Shawn’s achingly brilliant Evening at the Talkhouse. Entering the theatre feels like walking into a friend’s well-appointed living room thanks to Derek McLane’s seamlessly immersive set. The full cast is on hand for conversation over drinks (an array of brightly colored seltzers) and hors d’oeuvres (marshmallows and Swedish fish), chipping away at the secure anonymity usually provided by “the fourth wall.”
It’s hard to know the exact moment when the play starts, the first of many subversive acts by Shawn, as the actors converse with each other quietly well past when the last audience member takes their seat. When the lights finally do dim, Robert (Matthew Broderick) launches into a lengthy monologue. He’s a playwright-turned-television writer about to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the opening night of his poorly received play, Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars. The original company and creative team have gathered at the titular social club and as they talk, it appears their lives have veered in radically different directions. Many have left the theatre and there are numerous laments about the difficulty of making a living in the arts, but Shawn (who plays a washed-up actor named Dick), has far headier ambitions.
What begins as an erudite anti-love letter to the theater becomes a vividly drawn dystopia in which life is expendable and meaningful art is in short supply. Like Shawn’s masterpiece on the dangers of fascism, Aunt Dan and Lemon, he rolls out his true intentions with sly and subtle restraint. Helmed by the New Group’s artistic director Scott Elliott, the intermission-less piece luxuriates in the specificity of language but is driven by mysteriously brutal acts.
Dick arrives to the gathering with pronounced bruises and lacerations covering his head and explains them away as the result of a beating by friends: “I actually enjoyed it very much, in the end. Really, it was great. No—I loved it! In fact, you should try it some time, Robert.” There’s a wonderful tension that courses throughout between what we’ve come to know as accepted communal experiences and what these characters tell us about their world. Claudia Shear, Larry Pine, John Epperson, and Jill Eikenberry deliver lived-in performances of artistic urbanites that begin as familiar archetypes but soon become stranger creatures.
Shawn’s made up all of the pop culture references his characters dispense with ease as if to say that we are peering so far into a future where all art and culture we hold dear has been erased by the savage passage of time. Our own experiences provide us little in the way of comfort or navigation as we descend untethered into the playwright’s vast imagination. To go into specific detail would diminish the wondrous thrills to be had in this endlessly fascinating play. Suffice it to say: when the actors take their bows, mysteries linger, along with Shawn’s persistent haunting vision of world that may be closer than we think.
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Claudia Shear, Larry Pine, John Epperson, and Jill Eikenberry
Directed by: Scott Elliott
Through: March 12th at The Pershing Square Signature Center