Despite his highly successful outward appearances, playwright-actor Wallace Shawn has a rampant inferiority complex. At least, a cogent argument can be made for that state of his mind in his plays, autobiographical as they are. His low opinion of himself is present in at least three of his works — The Fever, The Designated Mourner and Grasses of a Thousand Colors. In all three — the first two among his most persuasive works, the third less so — a spineless middle-aged man in an unnamed, foundering society describes his moral weakness, either explicitly or implicitly. For the initial production of these plays, Shawn usually casts himself in the pivotal role. Those plays appear to be examples of Shawn’s need to expose personal failings that he cannot expunge. Now in his latest script, Evening at the Talk House, presented by The New Group at Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre, he literally doubles down.
Here, Shawn reiterates his view of an unspecified, deteriorating culture by bringing together a group of theater people for a reunion. He gives us two unmistakable stand-ins for himself: playwright Robert (Matthew Broderick) and down-at-heel actor Phil (Shawn).
Shawn has a trick up his sleeve
Nell’s environment is a welcoming one, and she’s assisted by Jane (Annapurna Sriram), herself an actress of little luck. Together they tend to this reuniting theater family; one of their tasks is putting quite a feast on the coffee table. (Since information in the play tells us that Nell has had financial difficulties, Derek McLane’s stylish set gives an impression of being somewhat too spanking new. The lip-smacking hors d’oeuvres are catered by Chez Josephine and Southern Comfort.)
So now that these old pals have met up and appear — that is, following a long introductory chat from Robert — what do they talk about? Much of it is showbiz skinny. Still, while characters talking about “the business” might be fascinating to those who are caught up in it, surely it’s as boring as watching paint dry for what Variety used to call “non-pros.”
But Shawn has a trick up his sleeve. (He wears patterned pajamas under an old tweed blazer, courtesy of costumer Jeff Mahshie.) Long convinced that civilization is going to hell in a hand-basket, Shawn allows the tiresome shop talk to continue only so long before introducing a much more macabre topic: someone drops the phrase “program of murder,” referring to planned killings by the government. Yes, this Talk House crowd lives in a country where citizens are snuffed out, for reasons that are ill-defined.
As these old pals chat about publicly sanctioned murder, it’s revealed that Annette and Bill have carried many of them out. Annette, after all, insists that her current current — repairing clothing — doesn’t yield sufficient income. Later, Jane claims that she, too, has lethally scratched some of her fellow citizens.
Shawn never names the deeply corrupt countries in his plays, but it’s not difficult to figure out which one he means. I have to admit that when I first saw Evening at the Talk House at London’s Royal Court last year, I dismissed it as another demonstration of the playwright’s repetitive handwringing.
Now I’m willing to lend more credence to the play. Think of Rodrigo Duterte’s killing squads in the Philippines, for example. Think of the demagoguery of the new US administration.
In other words, Evening at the Talk House may not rivet the audience with chatter about trivial sitcoms in which his characters have appeared or been involved. But it has the impressive effect of confirming Shawn as remarkably prescient. He’s sussed out the “normalizing” of destructive behavior settling over us as we speak. In an astounding manner, his play embodies this comment by Edmund Burke:
All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Here, the good people of Shawn’s work — OK, the sort of good-enough people who aren’t matter-of-factly murdering — do little to soften the edge of the underlying menace of the play.
Foremost in this respect are Robert and Phil. When Robert first discourses about giving up on writing serious plays and taking up as the head writer on a mild-sounding TV series, he uses qualifying words and phrases that show him to be a man of scarce motivation or commitment. It’s an intriguing posture that, when the blackout comes in the 100-minute piece, the character hasn’t been developed very much.
“Normalizing” destructive behavior
Which raises a question: since Shawn appear to write autobiographically, is this his way of telling audiences that he doesn’t think very much of himself as a thespian?
And while we ponder that, not a lot changes for the rest of this gabbing gang. Still, as directed with silken menace by Scott Elliott, the actors acquit themselves with aplomb, perhaps Broderick chief among them. It’s a particular hoot to see Epperson in a suit and playing piano so invitingly.
When the audience enters the auditorium, they’re encouraged to mix and mingle with the actors, who are already in character. I watched Eikenberry’s Nell and Sriram’s Jane circulate with drinks and snacks but bypassed any interaction. I regret that.