I have a bet on the table for you theater gamblers. If you can tell me what Wallace Shawn's Evening at the Talk House (2015) is about, the stake is yours. For I haven't a clue.
Catastrophic Theatre gives this ironic, dark comedy its usual pro overlay, but I think the company's in as much of a fog as I, more in awe of Shawn as splendid monologist than for how he puts his ideas into action. He covered this territory with more fervor, wit and dread in his splendidly splenetic The Designated Mourner (1996), superbly rendered last season by Catastrophic in one of its finest efforts. That startling play only needed three characters to breathe life into it. Talk House uses eight to diminishing effect.
Shawn is still dealing with the futility of art in a society that eschews the arts, some not-too-distant-future where totalitarian overlords have drained the spirit from the people, where artists must compromise, betray, confirm. When you lose your ideals, basic love turns to lust, or stifling inadequacy. These themes swirl about in Talk House, but like its title, that's all there is anymore, just talk. Some of it is stealthily commonplace, like Robert's opening monologue that sets the dystopian mood, but this little mood piece is raised to a disquieting level by Shawn's distinct voice and Seán Patrick Judge's uncanny ability to be both discreet and oily at the same time.
A few years from now, we're at a reunion at the old theater hangout, The Talk House – think of New York’s famed '20s Algonquin Hotel with its bitchy Round Table, or the following generation's boîte of choice, Joe Allen's – where the theater community would go to relax, have a bite and be seen.
Ten years ago theater died. We're not told how or exactly why, it just has. Everyone has moved on, or, to be precise, down. Playwright Robert writes insipid television fare; composer Ted (Kyle Sturdivant) pens advertising jingles; costumer Annette (Anne Quackenbush) now tailors clothes for the well-heeled; hot-shot matinee idol Tom (Jovan Jackson) stars in Robert's TV series; Broadway producer Bill (Abraham Zeus Zapata) works in TV, too; actress Jane (Jeanne Harris) now serves drinks at the Talk House; owner Nellie (Rebecca Randall) plods on as owner, though no one comes here anymore; it's not fashionable.
Into the group party, beat up and bruised, wearing ill-fitting sweats, wanders Dick (Charlie Scott), an unemployed actor who thinks he would have a much rosier future had he been cast in Robert's play ten years ago, apparently the last play ever written. He's staying at the Talk House, hiding from the “friends” who recently assaulted him. Snarky and giggling, a little creepy, Scott magnifies the sense of dread outside and the nihilism inside. You see, people in the city and around the world are being killed, people who “are not like us.” The assassins might be sitting next to you. They are!
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Shawn's drawing-room dystopia draws on Coward and a heaping plate of Orwell to make his polemic ring. However, the toll is musty. This “we're all murderers, please pass the cake” attitude sounds rather hollow the more they talk. Their light banter about former theater personalities is strangely distancing. We never fit into Ryan McGettigan's cozy club room with its plates of sweets and open bar. We listen, but aren't engaged. Only Jane's anguished cry to be free from it all stirs us for a moment, then everybody returns to the humdrum.
Quackenbush creates a finely shaded Annette (how we've missed her onstage in Houston), as cold-blooded a killer as any everyday asp next door, but everyone else misses the queasy tone inherent in Shawn. To be fair, it's difficult to flesh out what are talking points, but Shawn's particular style, ornate yet quotidian, can come off as fussy and peculiar when not specially fine-tuned.
At the London premiere and the play's off-Broadway production, the cast wandered through the audience dispensing marshmallows and gummy bears pre-show, treats famous at the once-glamorous Talk House. Would that Catastrophic had done so. Then we'd have something to chew on. As it is, this play's as airy and diffuse as cotton candy. And my bet still stands.
Evening at the Talk House continues through October 20 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays with special 7:30 performance on Monday October 16. The MATCH, 3400 Main. For information, call 713-521-4533 or visit catastrophictheatre.com. $35 suggested ticket price.