Is it a good or bad thing for a dyed-in-the-wool dystopian like Wallace Shawn when real life suddenly serves up very convincing approximations of the nightmares of authoritarian obeisance and moral cowardice he has been imagining for the stage for more than three decades?
A lot of doomsday predictions have been wafting about since the election of the white Mr. T. Fascism, totalitarianism, nuclear Armageddon, the collapse of truth, the end of the West: none of it may really be imminent but to all of us not sniffing Twitter-glue inside a Breitbart news-bubble, the worst feels terrifyingly plausible at the moment.
Shawn’s Evening at the Talk House thus faces a rather demanding test. Written well before the recent election, the play now feels more like a prophecy than a thought exercise. It is a bone-chilling tale of complacent acceptance of authoritarianism in a similar vein to Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Fever, The Designated Mourner and Grasses of a Thousand Colors. London reviewers found it overblown and underwhelming when it premiered there in 2015. Some New Yorkers may feel that way now, seeing the New Group production directed by Scott Elliott, but I did not.
To me recent events not only confirm the import of Shawn’s warnings; they make me more attentive than ever to the sort of can’t-look-away details he provides about exactly how such nightmares come about. Among this author’s special gifts is his unique insight into the stepwise mental compromises that ordinary people make—people like us, that is, not demonized, faraway others. What happens to someone like you or me when we’re pressured by group-oriented fear and threats to our self-interest and convenience?
The titular Talk House, the play’s setting, is a casually genteel after-hours club in what was once the theater district of an unnamed city. A playwright named Rob (Matthew Broderick) and some of his former collaborators have gathered there on the tenth anniversary of the last play he wrote, which flopped and marked a sea change in all of their lives. Around that time theater all but died in this society, and the only person who seems to mourn it now is Nellie (Jill Eikenberry), the sweet manager of the club, whose business has tanked. Rob is positively disdainful, calling theater “an animal business of sniffing and staring” that “completely lacked art, not to mention, for my money, charm.” He and the others now either work in television—vaunting their fame, flaunting their cronyism, blind to the insipidity of their shows—or struggle as waiters and freelancers.
The freelancing is where things get creepy.
Under the leadership of a strongman named Ackerley—an elected ruler who can’t be criticized and who is chummy with Rob and the star actor Tom (Larry Pine)—the country has adopted an aboveboard “Program of Murdering” in which ordinary people earn cash by killing people the government considers a threat. The killing is mostly done remotely by drones, but also sometimes up close with poison pins. Anyone who questions the wisdom or morality of this policy—like the has-been actor Dick, for instance, played with grim insouciance by Shawn himself in shlumpy pajamas—suffers cautionary beatings. No thugs necessary, one’s own friends typically do the violent honors. What does this remind you of?
Here is Annette (Claudia Shear), a former wardrobe mistress who now works for the program, explaining to a skeptical colleague why she regards it as thoroughly natural:
. . . you know, we go about our lives every day -- we go to work, we talk, we drink glasses of wine -- and every once in a while, occasionally even in the middle of dinner, we feel the need to go into the nearest bathroom and use our asses to get rid of some waste. And we barely even give it a moment’s thought. So I mean you know, pardon me, but I’m making an analogy between dropping some waste into the toilet, you see, and dropping a few small bombs onto certain targets, you know, dropping some rather small bombs onto certain people who pose a threat to us, all rather casual, and then you wash your hands and return to the table.
Annette brushes aside questions about whether “the right people” are being targeted (“we’re getting awfully good at determining that.”), blusters about the ends justifying the means (“the things we’ve done have really made a difference. I mean, we happen to be winning”), and flies into a rage after Dick presumes to mention the recent elimination (by poisonings in restaurants) of several actors they all know.
Dick’s become an absolute horror. A horror! How can [the club] let him stay here overnight? . . . He’s just been telling us about the deaths of some awful people we used to know, when we’re trying to have a pleasant evening. . . Disgusting – it’s disgusting! He seems to be completely out of control . . .
Annette’s reactions are the moral core of this hideously beautiful play. Acted with dead-on humble swagger by Shear, she is the consummate ethical compass with a stuck needle, the steady and reliable maternal figure in everyone’s past whose fearsome flashes of righteous indignation have been redirected toward bizarre objects. And this is what I meant before about the play’s value as a reality-check as we maneuver these days around our own monstrous Ackerley. Annette may be particularly grotesque but she is not unique. Shawn’s play contains half a dozen such distorted-mirror figures, and almost everyone will find their familiar counterpart.
The world in Evening at the Talk House is morally dessicated just enough to frighten us and make us think, but not, in my view, enough to dismiss as beyond the pale of relevance. Friendship and compassion in this place have almost disappeared. National pride has almost been replaced by dispassionate competition and survivalism. Market popularity has almost displaced all other creative ambition. The remnants and shreds of humane decency that are left—in Dick’s character, in Nellie’s magnanimous hospitality, in the general civility with which everyone behaves—function as hooks that catch us and reel us in when part of us certainly does want to flee.
Unjustly, I’ve said next to nothing about Elliott’s graceful, acute and assured production, which underscores all the points I’ve made, in part by warmly enveloping the audience in the commodious ambience of the Talk House stunningly created by designer Derek McLane. It feels as if we too had arrived to enjoy the plush couches, soft light and funny primary-colored drinks there. I suggest that you just go see the show. It will, I know, mean more to you than reading about it.
Photo credit: Monique Carboni/www.thenewgroup.org