In Wallace Shawn’s aptly named Evening at the Talk House, now being given a polished production by The New Group and director Scott Elliot at the Pershing Square Signature Center, conversation flows for 100 straight minutes. Well, ebbs and flows, as the talk veers from the mundane to the momentous to the morbid like a car with brake problems on the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s one of the main pleasures of the work, which can be alternately maddening, terrifying and a bit boring, that we’re never quite sure where we’re traveling – or where we’ll end up.
In fact, the play’s time setting is unclear. It may be the present (heaven forbid) or the very near future. The actual setting, however, is crystal-chandelier-clear: The Talk House is a tony private club (nicely rendered by Derek McLane) once favored by the theatrical set but now far less popular. (Come a bit early and you can stare at all the theatrical posters on the sidewalls, some of which I suspect are decidedly fake!)
The Talk House has been chosen to host the 10-year anniversary of a failed Broadway play called Midnight in the Clearing, organized by its composer Ted (a highly effective John Epperson). Also in attendance for this unanticipated reunion are its playwright, Robert (Matthew Broderick, perhaps being deliberately understated), who has since gone on to great television success alongside his leading actor Tom (a thoroughly underused Larry Pine); wardrobe supervisor Annette (a feisty Claudia Shear); and producer-turned-talent-agent Bill (a very fine Michael Tucker).
Plus there’s the Talk House’s good-natured proprietress Nellie (a lovely Jill Eikenberry), actress-turned-waitress Jane (a very good Annapurna Sriram), and temporary Talk House resident Dick (Shawn, in excellent form), a once-successful actor who has clearly seen better days.
So what do they talk about? Too much of the play is devoted to inside-baseball chatter about fictional theatrical and television figures. But every now and then, the subject abruptly changes to the geopolitical, and one sits up, pricks up one’s ears and wonders how much of the dialogue Shawn wrote since January 20. (No, President Trump is never mentioned.)
Even more than what’s actually said, though, what Shawn intends to be particularly shocking is how the guests reveal their actions, as well as their reactions, to these revelations – often with little more nonchalance than they do to the theatrical gossip or reminiscences of days gone by.
A final note: To paraphrase Anton Chekhov, if there’s a piano on stage, you can bet it will be played before the 100-minute show is over. It is, on more than one occasion, by Epperson (better known to many as his drag alter ego Lypsinka). Ultimately, though, it is used to ultimately chilling effect on an unexpected duet of Stephen Sondheim’s “Good Thing Going” by Epperson and Eikenberry. By the end of the play, we realize that while this great song’s final words (“We had a good thing going … going … gone) may originally have been about a failed romance, in 2017 they have taken on a new meaning about the state of the world as we know it.