Until Donald Trump’s critics began exhorting us to stay mindful of the fact that his presidency is aberrant and extreme, “normalization” was a word that one rarely heard in everyday conversation. But the insidious way in which the human mind can adjust and accommodate itself to injustice and violence has long informed and haunted the prescient, eloquent dramas that Wallace Shawn has been writing for much of his career. In Aunt Dan and Lemon (1985), a vulnerable young woman falls under the spell of a charismatic family friend, a passionate fan of Henry Kissinger and, by extension, of the mass slaughters that Kissinger helped to engineer. The Designated Mourner (1996) takes place in an unnamed country, before and after a brutal coup that one character, Jack, celebrates for having rescued him from the obligation to pretend to understand and admire the poetry of John Donne. Grasses of a Thousand Colors (2009) posits a world in which bio-engineering has produced toxic food stuffs that have doomed the human and animal populations to slow, agonizing deaths.
Shawn’s new play, Evening at the Talk House, brings us into an all-too-plausible near future in which vicious beatings (occasionally administered by one’s friends) have become commonplace, a world in which it is understood that committing political murders and selecting targets for long-distance killing are socially useful and practical part-time jobs: relatively effortless and even necessary ways to supplement one’s income. Directed by Scott Elliott in association with The New Group, the current New York production, which runs through March 12, begins by making audience members feel as if they are guests at the sophisticated gathering about to take place. Arriving at the theater, we are offered marshmallows and sparkling drinks, and encouraged to mingle with the actors milling among the armchairs, hassocks, and the comfortable-looking sofa with which the stage is set.
Eventually, a middle-aged playwright named Robert (Matthew Broderick) explains that we are about to witness a reunion of a group of his friends at a genteel, once-popular club, called the Talk House, famous for its delicious snacks and cocktails. A decade earlier, these people were involved with a play Robert wrote “at a time when the theater played a rather larger part in the life of our city than it does now.” Entitled Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars, Robert’s play—set in some vaguely medieval era and featuring “an independent knight who lived in an enormous forest”—sounds dreadful, but it did manage to win the approval of a certain Mr. Acklerley, a cruel politician who would soon “take a more and more prominent place in our national life.” Robert, like other characters in a number of Shawn’s plays, has not only made his peace with his drastically altered society, but has warmly embraced it. “A decline in the theater-going impulse could in a way be seen as a small price to pay for the rather substantial benefit derived from entering an era that quite a few people would describe as much more tranquil and much more agreeable than the one that preceded it.”
As we meet the rest of Robert’s old friends, we note that some of them have done considerably better than others. A rather dashing actor named Tom (Larry Pine) is starring in Tony and Company, an “unbelievably successful” TV comedy series; his celebrity has afforded him a chummy acquaintance with the “charming” and “clever” Mr. Ackerley, the dreaded dictator with an unexpected taste for Korean films and Korean actresses. Ted (John Epperson), a composer, now makes his living writing advertising music. Bill, a former producer (Michael Tucker), has reinvented himself as a prosperous talent agent. Jane (Annapurna Sriram), a failed actress, has gone back to work for Nellie (Jill Eikenberry), who runs the Talk House. And Annette (Claudia Shear), once a wardrobe supervisor, does private tailoring for wealthy clients—an unreliable means of support that, as we will soon learn, she supplements with other, less admirable forms of employment.
The most obviously damaged victim is a once-respected actor named Dick (Shawn), who appears in pajamas and a threadbare tweed jacket, his face still bruised and bloody from a recent beating at the hands of some friends. He has taken refuge and been given shelter at the Talk House. Dick’s suffering excites some pity from his former colleagues, compassion mixed with an equal measure of embarrassment and even irritation. His gloomy, alternately enraged and timorous presence casts a shadow on their otherwise bright evening and reminds them that under the present system, personal failure and nostalgia for “the old days” are, essentially, crimes.
Little by little, the harrowing details of life under the current regime begin to emerge. There are frequent elections and a rapidly-growing “Program of Murdering” that’s been put into place because “it attracted an awful lot of voters,” especially in rural areas. The characters bicker politely about how many lives are being lost as a result of the Program. Annette asserts that the Program is necessary, unavoidable:
It’s like something one does behind one’s back, so to speak—like something slightly unpleasant that one does with one’s ass once a day or so without paying it really a lot of attention…I’m making an analogy between dropping some waste into the toilet, you see, and dropping a few small bombs onto certain targets, you know, dropping some rather small bombs onto certain people who pose a threat to us, all rather casual, and then you wash your hands and return to the table, and there you have your Program of Murdering.
Annette is quick to reassure Tom, who idly frets about the challenge of being sure that the right individuals are being murdered; later Ted mentions that school children are being trained to target “people who represent a serious danger.”
Like Jack in The Designated Mourner, like the failed poetry critic turned fascist in Roberto Bolaño’s novella By Night in Chile, Robert has few regrets about the decline and (forcible, we assume) disappearance of the intellectual and cultural elite. “If pressed to the wall I’d have to say that theater for me eventually came to seem like a rather narrow corner, a rather distasteful little corner of the world in which to spend my life…a corner of the world that I wouldn’t mind leaving and whose general decline I was not in my heart of hearts terribly saddened about.”
As the evening wears on, we learn that this system has taken an enormous toll on at least some of these former friends. In one of the play’s most affecting scenes, Jane reveals the profound anguish that she suffers, partly as a consequence of the work she has done after she was obliged to admit that she would never succeed as an actress. And we come to realize how isolating and agonizing it can be to retain even a shred of conscience and morality in a society that has so effectively “normalized” violence and mass murder.
Given the gravity of its subject matter, its painful revelations, and the shocking conclusion to which it builds, Evening at the Talk House is not only disturbing but surprisingly and remarkably entertaining. This is in part because of brilliant ensemble performances delivered by the cast, the depth of characterization, and the wit and eloquence of Shawn’s language. He succeeds in making it sound entirely credible when his characters describe the most odious crimes against humanity in the breeziest and most lighthearted terms. Flashes of humor leaven the drama, most notably in a scene in which the characters recall the abysmal plays whose titles (Paper Towels and Deodorant Highway) suggest that the death of the theater was something closer to euthanasia than to homicide. “I do still remember the dialysis scene in The Elephant Does Forget,” Nellie reminisces. “I thought, ‘Why am I watching this?’”
But what makes the play even more chilling is the historical moment in which it is being performed. Evening at the Talk House was first staged in 2015 at the National Theater in London. That was before Brexit, before the election of Donald Trump, at a time when the drama may have seemed more like a reminder of a disturbing reality (the drone program, for example) than an account of where the brutalization and demagoguery now set in motion might lead. When Annette, defending the Program of Murder and the targeted killings, reminds Nellie that “The things we’ve done really have made a difference. I mean, we happen to be winning,” it’s hard not to hear an echo of our president’s bombast.
The hope, I suppose, is that we may leave the theater doubly determined not to become the kind of people who can meet, in several years, over delicious snacks and cocktails, to mourn the loss of friends who naively failed to accept the inevitable, and to report on how smoothly and seamlessly we have integrated heartlessness and cruelty into our daily routines.
Scott Elliott’s production of Wallace Shawn’s Evening at the Talk House is at The New Group through March 12.