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Evening at the Talk House

  • Theater, Comedy
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
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Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

A Red Orchid Theatre mounts the Chicago premiere of Wallace Shawn’s dystopian cocktail-party comedy. (This is comedy, right?)

Wallace Shawn seems to have a particular interest in how intellectuals and artists respond to totalitarianism. And if his new play Evening at the Talk House were to be lined up alongside his older works Aunt Dan and Lemon and The Designated Mourner, you wouldn’t come away with a heart swollen full of hope.

Now receiving its Chicago premiere at A Red Orchid Theatre under the direction of Shade Murray, Evening at The Talk House finds a group of ex-theater people (a playwright, a producer, a composer, a costume designer, a few actors) who’ve gathered at their old stomping grounds, the titular Talk House club, to commemorate an old production of theirs that—while not exactly successful—was apparently a very pleasant experience, not to mention a relic of a pleasanter time.

You see, in the decade that has lapsed since the closing of Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars, society has taken a turn for the dystopian. For instance, there is no theater anymore, and also it’s become a common part-time job to work identifying subversive persons for the government to execute. Some of the play’s characters, in fact, work these jobs. After all, they need the money. Did I mention the part about there not being any more theater?

The play is a perfect fit for a AROT in that no storefront in town is better suited to offering a murderer’s row (literally, in this case) of acting talent. Lance Baker plays the evening’s narrator, Robert, the writer of Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars. Robert’s done well for himself in the years since; after all, he’s the kind of charming creep who always seems to do well, especially when everything’s going to hell. Robert has made a name for himself in TV as a writer of sitcoms, along with the play’s leading actor, Tom (Miguel Nunez), and its producer, Bill (Noah Simon). All three men appear to be doing very, very well. Not so for the play’s costume mistress, Annette (Kirsten Fitzgerald), nor its composer (Doug Vickers), nor in fact for the Talk House itself or its owner, Nellie (Natalie West).

And then there’s Jane (Sadieh Rifai), an actress in the play who now works at the Talk House as a waitress, and whose career off the stage has involved a lot more assassinating than you might initially expect. The worst off of all of them is a man who wasn’t even invited to the gathering, Dick, an aging actor played by HB Ward like world’s most heartbreaking rendition of Rip Taylor. Dick’s face is covered in bruises and he seems to be quite drunk. He says his friends beat him up, that they needed to teach him a lesson—and, he adds, that they were perfectly right to do it. That gives you an idea of the world Shawn is drawing here—one where routine beatings are welcome, as they’re much preferable to the routine poisonings that seem to be picking off members of this social circle off one by one.

It’s a bit cliche at this point to point out that any story about fascist or totalitarian regimes calls to mind our current political climate. (Murray and sound designer Brando Triantafillou even add the occasional El train going overhead, just to make the horror a little more homey.) But it feels oppressive in an entirely different way to talk about this play as a commentary on current events. Because it is and it isn’t. There’s violence in the air but it’s a different kind of air altogether. I don’t think Wallace Shawn could ever do justice to the utter boorishness that is contemporary American discourse, nor would he really want to. He certainly doesn’t here. Instead he creates a world that is distinctly his own, that carries that scent of old New Yorker issues—probably those edited by his father—but ones that have been used to soak up a blood stain on the marble floor. The parallels in Evening at the Talk House are there for all to see. But it’s the artistry with which they are drawn that makes them worth the viewing.

A Red Orchid Theatre. By Wallace Shawn. Directed by Shade Murray. With Lance Baker, Kirsten Fitzgerald, Miguel Nunez, Sadieh Rifai, Noah Simon, Natalie West, Doug Vickers, HB Ward. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.

Written by
Alex Huntsberger

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$30–$35
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