Wallace Shawn’s Evening at the Talk House Review: when an actor’s day job can be murder

“The theatre is gone, but there are new things now,” says Matthew Broderick in Wallace Shawn’s chilling comedy, which imagines a dystopian but familiar society where former theatre people have gone on to television, or to a day job, such as murderer. “My paycheck arrives with complete regularity,” says an ex wardrobe supervisor turned assassin.

Annette (Claudia Shear) is also a seamstress, but there’s just not that much work these days in the world of Evening at the Talk House, which has now opened Off-Broadway. She is one of the people gathered together at an old theatre hangout called the Talk House for the tenth anniversary reunion of a (fictitious) play in which they were all involved, Midnight in a Clearing With Moon and Stars.  The wit and the horror of Shawn’s play is how, amid the kind of gossip, backbiting and nostalgic reminiscences standard from old troupers everywhere, the characters casually segue into conversations about “targeting” – killing people deemed undesirable.

(l-r) Matthew Broderick and Wallace Shawn in Evening at the Talk House (Photo: Monique Carboni)

More production photos at NewYorkTheater.me

“Of course I’d much rather be working on a show,” Jane, an actress who now splits her time between waitressing at the Talk House and killing, “but I’ve completely given up hope of that.”

It’s unclear who picks the targets, or how.  “I’m so worried about Dick,” Jane says to Robert. “I don’t know how much longer he’s going to be allowed to live.”

Shawn portrays Dick, a once-famous actor who now gets beaten up regularly. We never learn why, but we do learn that his old colleagues find him strange and annoying, including Robert (Broderick), the playwright of Midnight who has gone onto a career in television.   One strength of the New Group production of Evening at the Talk House is that the cast portraying the accomplished (former) theater artists is itself largely made up of accomplished (current) theater artists, some of whom –  Broderick, Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry — are best known for their screen roles.

Casting John Epperson as Ted, the former Midnight pianist turned freelance murderer, is an especially crafty choice, since we associate Epperson with his alternate persona, the decidedly non-murderous drag queen Lypsinka. Yet he is the one most adamant and impatient when Bill (Tucker) mildly questions the “Program of Murdering,” as it’s officially called: “Oh for God’s sake, Bill. Don’t pretend to be such an idiot.. We’re targeting people who present a serious danger. We’re applying a list of criteria …”

Evening at the Talk House is deliberately vague about the way the society it depicts differs from the one we currently inhabit. Yes, leaving the murdering sketchy adds to the terror – both for the characters and for us. But there are occasionally tantalizing morsels that suggest the 100-minute play might have felt more filling had Shawn cooked up some more aspects of his imagined world: We’re told that there is an election every three months, with the winner having alternated between two men for many years.

Director Scott Elliott is effective in creating an atmosphere of conventional conviviality – the cast mingles with playgoers as we enter the theater, Jane and Nellie (Annapurna Sriram and Jill Eikenberry) offering hors d’oeuvres from a tray – and then of growing dread.  The end of the show is conducted in the dark – there’s been a blackout, which we’re told is frequent in the district – lit only by candlelight.  If the effect is straight out of a horror movie, the arguments we hear throughout Evening at the Talk House are depressingly similar to the ones in the news these days.

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Evening at the Talk House is on stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street, Off Tenth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10036) through March 12, 2017.
Tickets and details.


Evening at the Talk House. Written by Wallace Shawn. Directed by Scott Elliott. Scenic design by Derek McLane, costume design by Jeff Mahshie, lighting design by Jennifer Tipton. Featuring Matthew Broderick, Jill Eikenberry, John Epperson, Larry Pine, Wallace Shawn, Claudia Shear, Annapurna Sriram, Michael Tucker. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.

Jonathan Mandell About Jonathan Mandell

Jonathan Mandell is a third-generation New York City journalist and a digital native, who has written about the theater for a range of publications, including Playbill, American Theatre Magazine, the New York Times, Newsday, Backstage, NPR.com and CNN.com. He holds a BA from Yale and an MA from Columbia University, and has taught at the Columbia School of Journalism and New York University. He blogs at http://www.NewYorkTheater.me and Tweets as @NewYorkTheater.

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