Wallace Shawn wouldn’t get into the elevator with me a while back. The elevator was large and empty (except for me) — the one at Lincoln Center Theater that brings theatergoers up to the Claire Tow on the top floor.
“I promise not to breathe on you,” I joked, but he muttered something and stayed put, allowing the doors to close, presumably waiting for the elevator to come back down for him after I had used it.
This was on March 1.Two weeks later, New York City shut down, and we all started wearing masks.
Wallace Shawn may be strange, but he is also prescient. His prescience is on dazzling and distressing display in “Evening At The Talk House,” a Zoom reading by The New Group of a chilling dystopian comedy that proves that life can imitate art.
In Shawn’s play, the former cast members of a (fictitious) play entitled “Midnight in a Clearing With Moon and Stars” are having a reunion ten years later at their old hangout, The Talk House. Their chatty gossip may sound familiar, but everything has changed since they performed together. Theater has disappeared. Everybody fears death, which is both common and seemingly arbitrary. (Mostly this involves murdering “undesirables,” a group that’s ill defined but ever-expanding.) There are moments between the characters that reveal economic stress, #MeToo-like harassment, even Putin-style murders by poisoned pin-pricks.
The Zoom reading of “Evening at the Talk House” is itself a reunion, a reading by the same solid eight-member cast, led by Matthew Broderick and Shawn himself, who performed the play on stage of the Signature Center shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017. At the end of his term, even without the fine design and staging of The New Group’s in-person production (and with the usual shortcomings of the Zoom platform), Shawn’s play feels all the more appropriate for the horror show that 2020 has become (apt, too, for me to be discussing it on Halloween.)
What makes “Evening At The Talk House” a comedy, and perhaps even more terrifying, is the way the characters behave almost exactly like the kind of theater people who hang out at Joe Allen’s (now just recently reopened in real life.) Jane (Annapurna Srira) catches up on her career after “Midnight” with her former cast-mates: She was in a couple of TV series “that weren’t that great, and I did one or two plays. And then I went abroad for a while. I worked as a murderer for the Special Areas Project for three or four years.” The others sympathize, ask her what her job was like (This is where the Russian-style poisoning comes in.)
In my review of the stage production in 2017, I noted that Shawn is deliberately vague about the particulars of the totalitarian society in which the characters live, and thought the play might be more satisfying had he imagined more of that world. But what makes “Evening at the Talk House” an exact if horrifying metaphor for this precise moment is the dread and uncertainty.
Evening at the Talk House is available online on demand through November 29 for $25 at The New Group, which is also offering another Wallace Shawn play, “Aunt Dan and Lemon.” (Ten percent of the proceeds for Talk House will benefit City Harvest.
Written by Wallace Shawn. Cast: Matthew Broderick, Jill Eikenberry, John Epperson, Larry Pine, Wallace Shawn, Claudia Shear, Annapurna Sriram, Michael Tucker.