Wallace Shawn’s new play Evening at the Talk House begins with an extended period where the audience mingles with the cast while servers pass out drinks and snacks, and this goes on for just long enough to produce a sense of discomfort. The audience would all quiet down for a bit sometimes as if they were waiting for the play to start, but then they would be forced to resume their quiet, buzzy talking. A lady in front of me finally confessed to one of the actors that she had “run out of things to say.”
Shawn makes you aware here of the audience as a group of individuals who are trying to do something together, and he also makes you aware of things like collective impatience. An air of something like menace descended on the space in between the silences. (Shawn is a playwright who is expert at sticking you with knives where you didn’t even know you had a place to stick a knife.) And then at last Matthew Broderick began to speak.
Broderick plays Robert, an erstwhile playwright who has gone on to some success in television. He explains to us at length that a former theater colleague named Ted (John Epperson) wanted to meet up with him and some of their old friends to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Robert’s play Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars at a near-forgotten club called the Talk House. As Ted plays sweet old songs on the piano like “I Will Wait for You” and “Whistling Away the Dark,” Robert speaks of his disdain for the dying art of live theater and his success with a TV sitcom called Tony and Company. He also mentions that he is well liked by a man called Mr. Ackerley, who has been the political leader of America for an unusually long time.
Evening at the Talk House takes place in a future or nether world where American and even world-wide culture has dwindled down to a handful of popular TV shows, one of which is a program where people are killed for sport. Among the remaining cast and crew of Robert’s play are a costume designer (Claudia Shear) who has resorted to virtual “targeted” killing of American enemies to pay her bills and a failed young actress named Jane (Annapurna Sriram) who works at the Talk House but makes most of her living through more hands-on killing of people deemed enemies of the state.
The conversation in Evening at the Talk House alternates between reasonable and seemingly post-moral justifications of murder for money and vicious backbiting about other people in show business. Names of imaginary actors come up so that they can be derided in the most merciless and detailed fashion, and this is one of the most curious aspects of this curious play. It feels like Shawn is using what he knows of the way actors sometimes uninhibitedly talk about the deficiencies of other actors as a symbol for his overarching theme of free-floating human cruelty.
Among living American playwrights only David Greenspan matches Shawn when it comes to exploring dank, foul-smelling corners of human consciousness that would scare off or even disgust most other writers. Obsessively, remorselessly, Shawn is drawn again and again to the ugly side of the human animal, from the grossness of excretion to the way violence and murder might be made into a casual activity. In his early and deeply alienating 1970s plays, Shawn vivisected romantic notions about sex, yet in Evening at the Talk House it is the memory of sex between Robert and Jane that looks to be the only respite in a world that has closed down into totalitarian fear and loathing.
Shawn leaves you with nearly nothing to cling to in this play, but it cannot be said that the hostile world he depicts here is an alien or somehow untrue one. The open cruelty of the people in Evening at the Talk House is as close to reality as, say, an audience at the theater made to wait too long. There is nowhere to hide from this savage play. All we can do is take the knives it inserts and feel how deep the wounds go.