“The Banality of Evil”
Derek McClane’s attractive set for Wallace Shawn’s talky, provocative, but unconvincing Evening at the Talk House—getting its New York premiere at the Pershing Square Signature Center after a run produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain—resembles a cozy club with couches, chairs, a bar, and piano. Jennifer Tipton’s warm lighting helps make it an inviting place in which to hang.
|Matthew Broderick, Michael Tucker (facing rear), Annapurna Sriram, Jill Eikenberry, Wallace Shawn, Claudia Shear, John Epperson. Photo: Monique Carboni.|
The audience enters directly into it, as if guests at the club, and the show’s well-known actors gradually appear and mingle with whoever has the temerity to chat with them. This is your chance to say hello to Jill Eikenberry, Annapurna Sriram, Matthew Broderick, Larry Pine, John Epperson (a.k.a. Lypsinka), Michael Tucker, Claudia Shear, or the affable Shawn himself; you may even spot a star not in the show itself, like Linda Lavin when I went, catching up with their actor friends.
As the lights dim, Broderick, playing a playwright and TV writer named Robert, begins a long monologue that sets up the world of the play, which is a tenth-year anniversary get-together of the actors in a flop play Robert wrote called Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars. The event has been arranged by the play’s composer, Ted (Epperson), who occasionally tinkles the ivories. (A highlight is when he and Eikenberry sing a duet of Sondheim’s “Good Thing Going,” whose lyrics assume an ironic air in the play’s dramatic context.)
|John Epperson, Matthew Broderick, Jill Eikenberry (facing rear), Annapurna Sriram, Larry Pine, Claudia Shear. Photo: Monique Carboni.|
Since then, the lives of the participants have changed considerably, the play’s leading man, Tom (Pine), for instance, now being the very popular star of Robert’s hit TV show, “Tony and Company,” while Dick (Shawn), the actor who lost out on the role Tom landed in Robert’s play, has fallen on hard times. As Robert introduces each character, they exit; when they’re all gone the action proper commences, with the actors returning as needed.
The gathering is at a once flourishing, now declining actors’ club, the Talk House, operated by Nellie (Eikenberry) and the failed actress Jane (Sriram). The profession of theatre, barely hanging on, went into a tailspin some years back but TV sitcoms are flourishing.
Gradually, as the nicely costumed (by Jeff Mahshie) characters talk shop about fictional showbiz matters, we realize we’re in a not-too-far-distant dystopian future, where, while things seem perfectly normal on the surface, elections are held every three months; the former leader (the word “president” is never uttered) may have been assassinated; the present one has “cruel” tendencies, though he’s generally approved; people know that the walls, and every other physical object, not to mention human beings, have ears, as the expression goes; blackouts are common; and Ted, Jane, and former wardrobe supervisor, now private seamstress, Annette (Shear) talk openly about their having carried out killings to eradicate those with potentially harmful or contradictory ideas as if they were only doing what comes naturally; even Jane’s expressions of regret bear little weight.
It doesn’t take long to imagine that, before this evening at the Talk House is over, there’ll be a blackout and someone will have succumbed, although why this particular victim was chosen remains opaque, if vaguely logical within the thematic framework. The point, perhaps, is that once sanctioned targeting begins even the innocent become suspect.
Much as Shawn’s subject has a fundamental fascination, even importance, especially considering fears regarding the current administration—despite the play being written in 2015—and the headline-grabbing news of Kim Jong Nam’s assassination, his play never seems believable enough to accept its premises. Instead, it’s a weak attempt to demonstrate the way in which ordinary people in difficult times armor themselves against the ethical ramifications of their deeds when they believe they’re acting on behalf of a righteous cause, and how a culture can learn to live with such behavior.
When the talk of killing comes up, in the course of a casual conversation, only one character, a producer-turned-agent named Bill (Tucker), questions the practice, with frustrated reactions but no true disgust or anger; the others sit by, bored, mildly interested, or simply blasé. It’s easy to see Shawn’s point but hard not to feel, as I wrote in my notes, that “this is ridiculous.”
Director Scott Elliott, of The New Group, and his noteworthy cast do all they can to make Shawn’s attempts at spontaneous language sound other than synthetic. However, the 100-minute play, a sizable, rambling chunk of it played only in candlelight, is eventually murdered by its own artificiality. Evening at the Talk House may have lots to talk about but it’s hard to believe much of what it says.
The Pershing Square Signature Center/Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through March 12