A Red Orchid Theatre’s latest show An Evening at the Talkhouse is my kind of production. It’s a darkly funny one-act play running around 100 minutes. It’s funny in a hideous, not completely obvious way.
Wallace Shawn, the human gargoyle known for playing Vizzini in The Princess Bride and voicing Rex in the Toy Story movies, wrote the book. An Evening at the Talkhouse presents itself as a comedy of manners striving to be dystopian fiction. Lance Baker plays Robert, a successful playwright turned screenwriter. Baker, doing his best Nigel Crane impression, opens the play with a clever and well-delivered, albeit overlong, monologue explaining that the cast of one of his plays is getting together for a reunion after 10 years. They meet at the Talk House, a social club that’s been eclipsed in recent years by more chic, modern nightclubs. Five members of Robert’s production 10 years ago attend along with Nellie the owner/manager of the Talk House played by Natalie West, and her one employee Jane played by Sadieh Rafai. There’s an unwanted addition to the party made by Dick an actor who auditioned but wasn’t cast in the original production and still hasn’t gotten over the rejection. Played by HB Ward, Dick is the sharp edge in the production, butting in to tell it like is whenever self pity or a deluded self image cloud another character’s recollection of the time when they knew each other better. Ward does a magnificent job of portraying that drunk uncle character who you’re constantly afraid is going to fall and hurt himself, but has moments of unexpected wisdom. Dick is actually being harbored at the Talk House after nearly escaping a violent mob of… his friends.
An Evening at the Talkhouse has a wonderfully creepy quality. There are hints in the opening monologue that some sort of social or cultural shift has begun in the years since Robert’s play was put on, but I dismissed this as a nod to the digital revolution. As the play continues on, you find out that Dick is being physically threatened by a gang of his friends. As the cast of Robert’s play talks about their years since the production acting and… doing other things to get by, you begin to get the sense there’s something off about their world. For a delicate social satire, demonstrating the tensions in creative communities, the ways in which talent is not always rewarded, how some succeed only by trampling others, Talk House does a wonderful job of splashing the entire cast and audience with blame. Everyone is complicit if not an active participant in the atrocities society regulates. The most drastic realities the plot alludes to feel like the bones of an allegory. Director Shade Murray’s set feels like your living room. You are sitting across from these characters who are speaking casually about their involvement in unthinkably violent realities, and you are thinking about the new normal in your society and how you’ve already begun to expect the atrocities if not totally accept them yet.
Shawn’s book resists full allegory. The play’s sticking to a single act and leaving all these morals and metaphors open-ended is perhaps more frustrating and upsetting than a satire making a direct criticism. Despite the grand dystopian background, the small talk dialogue was written and delivered in an utterly convincing, comfortable and familiar way. While there wasn’t a missing link in Murray’s cast, Rafai’s performance as Jane has stuck with me for several days since seeing the production. She feels like you and your friends, idealistic women born open by repeated small blows in life. But her way of getting through is disturbing. The looming train shaking the ceiling echoes the distant horror–your realization of what Jane does when she can’t find work acting. Claire Chrzan’s flickering lighting and Brando Triantafillou’s sound design are effective and understated, maintaining your sense of sitting in a parlor, sipping on a cocktail, palms sweaty and sick to your stomach.
See An Evening at the Talkhouse through November 19 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St. Purchase tickets here.