As the reality of the Trump administration bent on rolling back hard-won civil liberties starts to take hold, half of America feels blindsided, wondering in disbelief, “How the hell did this happen?”
Wallace Shawn, the esteemed, conscience-tweaking dramatist and actor, is probably not so surprised. As the author of “Evening at the Talk House,” a darkly comic examination of the havoc wrought by a cruel, autocratic ruler who traffics in fear and discrimination, perhaps he saw it coming. Written several years ago, the play is chillingly prescient.
The drama received largely critical reviews when it premiered at London’s National Theatre in 2015. Perhaps the story, about a society where theater as an art form has been left for dead and violence against perceived outsiders has become the norm, seemed too farfetched. But that was before Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
In this top-notch production by the New Group, boosted by a stellar ensemble, it takes a while for the play’s creepy reality to fully sink in. A band of former theater folks has reunited at their old haunt, a genteel, down-at-the-heels club called the Talk House, to reminisce about a play they had staged 10 years earlier. The kindly proprietor, Nellie (Jill Eikenberry), is resistant to change and serves basically the same old tired snacks and cocktails. Clearly, the club’s days are numbered.
During the intervening decade, some have fared better than others. The playwright, Robert (Matthew Broderick), who delivers a long introductory monologue that hints at the fraught political climate, is now head writer of an inane and insanely popular TV show. TV comedies are now the chief form of entertainment — communal artistic pursuits like theater are a thing of the past.
“Walls have ears,” cautions Robert. “As do floors, ceilings, windows, doors, plates, cups, spoons, forks, and, come to think of it, other human beings.”
The decade-old play’s former leading man, Tom (Larry Pine), is now the star of that TV show. By ordinary standards, both men would be branded as sellouts, but in this brave new world, they are heroes.
The show’s costumer, Annette (Claudia Shear), tries to eke out a living as a personal tailor. Their producer, Bill (Michael Tucker), has transitioned into a lucrative career as a talent agent.
It’s not long before we realize something is terribly awry. Dick (played with acerbic eccentricity by Shawn himself), once a popular TV star, has crashed the festivities in his rumpled pajamas. His face is badly bruised, his mouth crusted with dried blood — the result of a brutal beating by “some friends.”
“I haven’t changed,” the dissipated has-been says in exasperation. “Everything else has changed.”
Incredibly, out of the blue, Annette admits she has participated in the government program of violence. So have Ted (John Epperson, shedding his Lypsinka persona) and Jane (Annapurna Sriram), the longtime server at the Talk House.
Under the meticulous direction of Scott Elliott, “Talk House” is a slow burn of a play. Some of the revelations, however, could use a pop of adrenaline. Sure, the play is disturbing, but the character’s blasé attitude toward the brutality does not translate into gripping theater. There is plenty of talk going on at the Talk House, yet drama is in short supply.
To enhance the intimacy of the proceedings, the theater has been configured with the playing area in the center, flanked by raked seating. Upon entering, theatergoers are offered sparkling water and strange hors d’oeuvres (gummy worms, anyone?), and a few lucky ones are greeted by one of the actors.
Derek McLane’s set features a comfy lounge area with overstuffed chairs and an upright piano (Epperson makes good use of it from time to time, even banging out a Sondheim ditty). A quaint crystal chandelier hangs over them all.
The supremely unsettling “Talk House” is less concerned with the atrocities perpetrated by otherwise ordinary citizens and more with the normalization of such acts. Complacency comes at a price. A potent lesson, it could be argued, in these times.
EVENING AT THE TALK HOUSE | The New Group | Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. | Through Mar. 12: Tue.-Fri. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m. & 8 p.m., Sun. at 2 p.m. | $75-$95 at TheNewGroup.org or 212-239-6200 | 100 mins., with no intermission