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Theater review: Evening at the Talk House is Wallace Shawn's political party trick

Evening at the Talk House
Photograph: Monique Carboni

★★★★☆

The country has been stolen by openly lawless vote riggers. Your fellow citizens are amoral brutes, happy to beat enemies or inform against you. Calling people Nazis or fascists suddenly seems quite rational. I know this sounds like just another day in America, but I’m describing the dystopian milieu of Wallace Shawn’s latest play, Evening at the Talk House, now getting its New York premiere thanks to director Scott Elliott and the New Group.

For decades, Shawn (The Designated Mourner) has written of a world in which artists are crushed by government thugs and ordinary citizens cheerfully justify crimes against humanity when not rhapsodizing about their plush, cozy lives. Depending on your political outlook, you may shrug and call that the status quo in the West for more than a century. Still, watching Talk House, I had the uncanny sensation that Shawn has turned his theatrical nightmares into our waking reality.

The 100-minute piece takes place at the titular club, a beloved refuge for actors and writers such as Robert (Matthew Broderick), a playwright who, a decade earlier, penned a medieval-fantasy drama called Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars. Various friends associated with the production gather for a reunion: leading man Tom (Larry Pine), costume designer Annette (Claudia Shear) and producer Bill (Michael Tucker). Serving drinks and snacks are hostess Nellie (Jill Eikenberry) and frustrated actor Jane (Annapurna Sriram). Skulking on the sidelines is Dick (Wallace Shawn), a washed-up ex-TV star whose face is covered in bruises. “Well, it was a short battering,” Dick mildly explains to Robert. “You know. Informal.” Later, when Annette angrily defends her side work in “targeting”—selecting lists of people to be bombed, perhaps by drone strike—you start to realize that Shawn has wickedly conflated showbiz pluck with state murder. Even the most harmless, vulnerable members of society—stage folks—have blood on their hands.

Staged with sly humor and creeping perversity by Elliott, Talk House is elliptical, weird stuff. Unless you’re already a fan, you may find it opaque or off-puttingly cryptic. Those of us who’ve loved Shawn for years, however, will simply note that he’s moved into documentaries.

Pershing Square Signature Center (Off Broadway). By Wallace Shawn. Directed by Scott Elliott. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission. Through Mar 12. Click here for full venue and ticket information.

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote         

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