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Evening at the Talk House: a Review of Wallace Shawn’s New Play

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The occasion of the evening depicted in Wallace Shawn’s  most recent play  is a meeting of the company of a play, convened on the tenth anniversary of its opening, at the Talk House, an old theater district club. The dramatist, Robert, played with oily confidence by Matthew Broderick, in the New York production directed by Scott Elliott, opens the evening with a long monologue that introduces the characters and the times.[1]

Robert had forgotten the anniversary of the play until reminded by a call from Ted, who had composed some incidental music for it. Robert was also surprised to learn from Ted that the company had thoroughly enjoyed putting on the play, and would enjoy gathering to mark the occasion.

Robert thought the play his best, even though it had flopped. To audiences Robert’s plays “seemed vaguely medieval, but I always explained that really most of my plays took place in an imaginary kingdom that preceded history altogether or stood to one side of it.” This play, Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars, “told the story of a powerful king, his loyal sons, and a  princess, but actually the central figure was a sort of independent knight.” The play had been noticed by “a certain Mr. Ackerley, who not long afterwards began to take a more and more prominent place in our national life,”  with the result that “certain lovely prizes were awarded several years later, after  I’d moved into the more congenial form of writing that sustains me today.”

Mr. Ackerley has introduced a New Order, in part by deploying his “cruel side, more and more in evidence, one could say, but how do these personal traits translate themselves into nation-wide happiness or unhappiness, or do they, you see?” Under the New Order, playwriting and production and theater-going have collapsed, but that is fine with Robert, who has decided that theater was  “fundamentally no less mindless than what dogs do or what cows do, an animal business of sniffing and staring.” The decline of theater is “a small price to pay for the rather substantial benefit derived from entering into an era that quite a few people would describe as much more tranquil and much more agreeable than the one that preceded it.”

Robert was once excited to see his New Orderly ideals come to lit, costumed, beautiful life on stage: “self-sacrifice, first of all, I suppose; courage–or heroism on a field of battle, if that was the venue; the instantaneous, repeated decision to choose suffering in preference to dishonor. The power and magnificence of the body, I suppose, when inspired into action.” Robert persuades himself that the TV show for which he is well-paid head writer, “admittedly in an entirely different style, presents some of these same ideals  in a more contemporary package in each thirty-minute segment.”

When Ted suggests holding the reunion at the Talk House, a famous theater district club where the company had often adjourned after a performance, Robert is surprised to hear that the place still exists. It was and is still run by Nellie, assisted by Jane, then an aspiring young actress, now still aspiring, and still assisting Nellie at the reduced, faded, but extant Talk House. In the main room, Robert is joined by Nellie (Jill Eikenberry), Jane (Annapurna Sriram), Ted (John Epperson), now doing occasional advertising music, Bill (Michael Tucker), once the producer, now a successful talent agent, Annette (Claudia Shear), once the costume designer, now tailor to private clients, and Tom (Larry Pine),  male lead in Midnight, now star of Robert’s TV show.

Robert is also astonished to discover a once-familiar actor named Dick, slumped in a chair, his face severely bruised, played by Wallace Shawn. “I was beaten, rather recently, by friends, but you see, I actually enjoyed it very much, in the end.” “They were right, obviously. I was getting to the point where I was about to cross a line.” Dick had once been quite successful, before Midnight, not since, and unlike Robert, misses the old days.

Dick had been considered for the lead in Midnight, and felt he might have brought more to the role than Tom, but didn’t get it, despite Bill’s support, because of Robert’s hatred for him, he reminds Robert, to the latter’s embarrassed protests. Dick’s beating, not the first, has affected his health, and he has a momentary seizure, but recovers. Nellie is letting Dick live at the club, in one of the upstairs rooms for special situations.

Drinks and snacks are served, and refreshed, by Nellie and Jane. Conversation flows sociably, about old times at the Talk House, the fare, friendships and romances, the theatrical life that sustained it, which perished, for diverse reasons. Those whose current pursuits are prosperous and celebrated are wished well, not resented by the less fortunate.  “Things change, that’s the rule of life. The world moves on,” observes Robert complacently.

This brings up society and politics, and Tom asks about “this crazy number of elections we’re having.” Nellie agrees: “every three months is almost irritating. And I mean, Ackerley almost always wins anyway, you know, and he’s had the job for much too long, anyway, I would say.” Tom has met Ackerley several times. The qualities and interests of Ackerley and his associate Mr. Rodman are considered at length.

Bill acknowledges their qualities, but confesses that “I’ve gotten fed up with both of them, really, because I just can’t stand that ‘Program of Murdering,’ it gets bigger every year.” Tom notes that it’s “very popular in the rural areas,” while Annette argues that “it isn’t really an enormous number of lives.” Bill disputes this, but Annette persists, comparing it to the biological human process of excreting waste, which pauses the conversation.

Tom asks if we can be sure we are targeting the right people. Annette claims that the process is very sophisticated, and  admits that she has done “targeting,” for an income. “The private tailoring business is not what it used to be.” There is another pause; Bill doubts that many work in “targeting,” which Annette dismisses as naivete. Ted admits to “targeting,” and notes that it is being taught in schools. Annette and Ted emphasize that “they want to harm us,” which all agree is dangerous; a terrorist incident is recalled. The targeted are overseas.

Nellie wonders “what would happen if the people we’re targeting were ever to learn our techniques—and start going after us?” Bill wonders “why, did you say, do all these people have the desire to harm us?” Ted and Annette dismiss the question as irrelevant. Bill chuckles, reminded of a TV show in which a character shot someone in a bar every other episode. Robert said that the perpetrator “had a rather low tolerance for people who were rude,” which Tom seconds.

Dick mentions the sudden death of someone they knew, in a restaurant the week before. Bill recalls another sudden death with the same symptoms. Dick mentions “tiny gray pellets—no taste at all. Your friend drops two or three of them into your drink, and bam!—half an hour later you’re gone, that’s it.” “It could be worse,’ says Bill. Dick feels that making light of suffering will cause it to “somehow return to make you regret your remark.” This is very unpopular, and Dick leaves to help Nellie in the kitchen, while the others execrate him.

They then ask Jane about her life since the play. She had some minor acting jobs, with shows and personalities they all know and discuss. Jane then worked in targeting for three or four years, traveling overseas to carry out assignments herself, the easier cases, nothing like the jobs handled by Ray, who used to work at the coffee shop next door. Robert and Tom’s show doesn’t do well in such overseas locations. Amazingly, the show Oceans of Blood, which “no one watches,” about “people who’ve just been shot,” the “wound show,” is a smash hit in Luxembourg and elsewhere.

Nellie and Dick return with a cake, inscribed with the name of the play, which is much appreciated. After the cake Nellie calls for a reading of a particular passage, from the script she has taken from the Talk House library. Robert declines, Tom begs off, Dick is called upon, and assents when they insist. The shambling, bruised, defensive Dick comes marvelously alive as he reads a speech at a victory banquet in Robert’s quasi-medieval tale.

“My friends, the king has spoken, so what can I add to what’s been said. I love him and respect him, and it’s been an honor to serve him during a moment such as this, when the fate of all we’ve stood for seemed to be in doubt, and we had no choice but to once again fight for it all with all our strength.” Dick describes ungrateful subjects, treacherous allies, and an enemy righteously and gorily slain by him, with names like those in J.R.R. Tolkien. “And so tonight, we feast. In the black, enormous pits outside, the golden antelopes have been placed on burning wood… The golden antelope, preeminently, of course, is the meat of triumph…And yet, forgive me, my king, and forgive me, friends: at this high moment I beg to take leave of you.”

Across the lake, a queen is threatened by murderous interlopers, and Dick’s character must rest tonight, to prepare for his journey hence tomorrow. “While all of you taste the intoxicating flesh of the golden antelope, I shall sit in my armchair with a bowl of raspberries…My dear companions—may you long continue to protect each other and take delight in each other, while I head out down  my separate path.”

The company applauds; Tom admits that he never gave the speech so well, among other appreciative comments, which are followed by a reflective silence. When they first staged it, the company saw the play’s evocation of duty and fellowship and honorable warfare as uplifting fantasy. Such values have latent, ominous political valences—as noted by Mr. Ackerley. Those valences have influenced the company in different degrees and ways.

Nellie suggests they take coffee in the library, and all but Robert and Jane leave. Power shortages have been mentioned, and the lights go out. By candlelight, they discuss Dick at length, his talents, or lack thereof; Robert notes his dubious socio-political status, and feels his presence at the Talk House may compromise it and Nellie, and by implication Jane, with whom he is trying to rekindle an affair. Yet he defends the evening when Jane suggests it was a mistake for implicating him, whereupon she accuses him of dishonesty, a quality she recalls from their affair, which she wants to forget totally. She is at lowest ebb, wishing to be targeted. The rest of the company returns.

The evening has proceeded like a reunion, with reminiscences, talk of old acquaintances, of past and present deeds, pleasantly aimless, but suffused with New Orderly violence. The denouement snaps it all into vivid, appalling focus. The house lights come up, and the bracing impact is softened by a final, eloquent, gesture with a candle from each cast member. Shawn wants to tell us the truth about ourselves because he feels we are capable of better. This complements the minutes before the play, in which cast members offered trays of refreshments as the audience passed over or near the stage to take their seats. The Talk House set itself, designed by Derek Lane, clubby and homey, enhances this effect. We are part of the company, and of the New Order, and face the same choices.

Ben Brantley, in his New York Times review, called Evening at the Talk House “an anxious excavation of moral cowardice in a fascist age.”[2] He noted that the U.S. “is in a highly apprehensive mood, with the ‘N’ word—Nazism—being invoked with alarmed abandon.” He found Talk House  weaker than an earlier Shawn play about a New Order, The Designated Mourner, whose title character gradually revealed his complicity and degradation. Brantley argued that the personal monologues of The Designated Mourner engaged the audience more deeply, while the ensemble form of Evening at the Talk House makes the polemical content more obvious, and distances the audience.

Brantley praised rapturously another ensemble play about political history, J. T. Rogers’ Oslo,  now running at the Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, after opening at the smaller Newhouse Theater there.  Brantley reviewed the play in both venues, finding it “as expansive and ambitious as any in recent Broadway history,” which has been “allowed to stretch to its full height in the thrilling production” that ”fills to the bursting point its capacious new home at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.”[3][4]

Rogers depicted the nine months of secret meetings outside the Norwegian capital that preceded the Oslo Accords between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the state of Israel. This culminated in the September, 1993 ceremony on the White House lawn and the famous (notorious) handshake between then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Brantley left it “to historians to confirm or dispute the accuracy of Mr. Rogers’s portrayals,” but credits him with “a fine job of mapping the lively, confusing intersection where private personalities cross with public roles.” If the history isn’t accurate, the history playwright hasn’t mapped, but imagined too fully. Brantley referred to Michael Aronov’s portrayal of Israeli diplomat Uri Savir, “as an exuberant rock-star dignitary,” “a cross between Mick Jagger and James Bond.” I saw the play at the Beaumont, and while Aranov played his part with flamboyant gusto, he acknowledged in his dressing room after the show that Rogers invented Savir’s persona to dramatize the story. Aronov had met Savir, a career Israeli diplomat, polished and articulate. Savir was described as “suave” by his Palestinian interlocutor at Oslo.

Omitting history from a history play discards the real dramatic material. A play as “expansive and ambitious as any in recent Broadway history” was there for the writing, in the radical imbalance of power, the intransigence of Israel at the Madrid and Washington talks, the principled positions of the Palestinian representatives there, the duplicity of the PLO in going behind their backs, the incompetence of their Oslo representatives, their abject surrender and betrayal of Palestinian hopes, the PLO’s enlistment as Israel’s agents in controlling  the occupied territories on her behalf, and the Israeli and Palestinian voices who condemned the agreement at the time, for these reasons.

Omitting history is the secret of Rogers’ success with his “history plays,” which include Blood and Gifts, about the US in Afghanistan, also produced at Lincoln Center, and The Overwhelming, about Americans in Rwanda on the eve of genocide there. As Alissa Solomon observed in The Nation,

“these plays feel cold and strangely apolitical as, in the end, they strike a pose of careful neutrality. In Oslo, the process of making the sausage is the play’s only concern; how it turned out is rendered irrelevant.” [5]

The history play without history, that does not stimulate judgment, or even the suggestion, may be interesting as theater. Collapsing history to mere spectacle, presentable at Lincoln Center,  the Pentagon of imperial culture, is a supremely polemical, totalitarian exercise, as Mr. Brantley might ponder.

Shawn’s perennial theme of polite company and their rude deeds is more apropos than ever, if more obvious. In the end, this theater-goer felt deeply engaged. Today’s social canvas is very rough, dirty and torn, and only a broad brush, wielded by a master, can produce art on it. Evening at the Talk House may be compared with Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, in which village people in rural France begin turning into rhinoceroses, which is usually taken as an allegory on the advent of fascism. In Talk House, instead of turning into exotic beasts, everyday people commit beastly deeds.

The play was first produced at the National Theatre in London in November, 2015. It must have been finished no later than early 2015. Jonathan Kalb, the theater scholar and dramatist at CUNY, stated that “the play now feels more like a prophecy than a thought exercise. It is a bone-chilling tale of complacent acceptance of authoritarianism.” [6]   Most reviews I read used similar terms. Some reviewers seem to think Shawn is criticizing the theater, but he is writing about all polite society, from what he knows best. It’s better to begin at home if you are finding fault.

The Times also published a collective interview with the cast and the director, conducted on the morning of Donald Trump’s inauguration as president. [7]  They all read the play and recognized its insight well before the 2016 presidential election. Larry Pine noted that “if the election had gone the other way, this play would still be very relevant.” Shawn stated: “Our complacency is dangerous to other people.”

In a 2014 interview, Shawn (or a headline editor) said that he would “prefer it if you knew him as a radical playwright,” rather than the characters from his acting career. [8]  He still has the master’s touch, and his position as preeminent radical playwright is assured. While theaters remain open.

Notes

[1] http://www.thenewgroup.org/evening-at-the-talk-house.html

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/16/theater/evening-at-the-talk-house-review.html

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/13/theater/oslo-broadway-review.html

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/12/theater/review-a-byzantine-path-to-middle-east-peace-in-oslo.html

[5] https://www.thenation.com/article/according-to-oslo/

[6] https://www.jonathankalb.com/single-post/2017/02/16/Evening-at-the-Talk-House

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/25/theater/wallace-shawn-evening-at-the-talk-house.html

[8] http://www.salon.com/2014/07/22/wallace_shawn_i_wish_people_knew_me_as_a_radical_playwright_instead_for_the_princess_bride/

Harry Clark can be reached at his web site, http://questionofpalestine.net

 

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Harry Clark can be reached at his web site, http://questionofpalestine.net

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