Saturday December 16th 2017

“Evening at The Talk House” reviewed by Jacob Davis

Highly Recommended ***** There may be people in troubled times who can uphold civic virtues and risk all for a better future, but Wallace Shawn’s Evening at the Talk House, now playing at A Red Orchid Theatre, isn’t about them. It sure is funny, though, until it becomes disturbing and appalling. Set twenty minutes into the future, this play depicts the people who are the background characters in dystopias about the perils of mass media: the ones who get used to their new lives, try to make the system work to their own advantage, and basically get the government they deserve.

The titular Talk House is a club that serves theatre people, or, at least, it did. It’s fallen on hard times due to the declining relevance of theatre, but tonight, the creatives of a play from ten years ago are having a reunion. To Robert (Lance Baker), the playwright, this is weird because the play was quickly forgotten and he’s moved on, as has everyone else, to work in television. He’s done well, as have some of the others, and the rest haven’t, but that’s showbusiness. The Talk House’s owner, Nellie (Natalie West), is delighted to have them all back again, not just because of the money but because she’s pretty much the only one left who still believes in the play or theatre in general. The only person who is displeased is Dick (H.B. Ward), an unexpected guest there by coincidence who was already washed up a decade ago and who believes Robert’s aversion to casting him cost him his second chance.

Robert’s extremely unflattering description of the drunk, badly beaten, and half-insane Dick in an aside at the start of the play sets its acerbic tone. The entire audience was soon in hysterics as Dick’s menacing, self-pitying ranting was interrupted by a seizure, and once the director has the audience laughing at a realistically depicted seizure, the comedy can only get blacker. The old friends’ conversation transitions to the political situation so naturally it’s easy to accept everything they say about it. The more fortunate characters are celebrities who are in the orbit of the political leaders, but have no real power except over other people in showbusiness. Backstabbing in some fashion was always part of their game. The less fortunate have the kind of day jobs that aren’t pleasant but are sure to be steady.

It’s a neat trick of director Shade Murray and the eight-person cast to make us identify with and enjoy the conversations of these people while simultaneously finding them reprehensible. Other than that the TV shows they’re discussing are entirely fictional, they sound like they’re providing fascinating, albeit self-serving, insider commentary. Kirsten Fitzgerald, Miguel Nunez, Noah Simon, and Doug Vickers play the other members of the reunion, while Sadieh Rifai plays an actress whose career keeps bringing her back to serving drinks at the Talk House. Other than Simon’s character, each of them is on some level disappointed by how far removed they are from their dreams, but are saving face by putting a positive spin on what they’re currently doing. Props and set dressing designer Mary O’Dowd has provided a warm locale that functions as a memorial to the characters’ happier past, and an imperiled oasis.

There’s a lesson in Evening at the Talk House about how easily brutality becomes normal. As time passes, director Murray steadily raises the tension as it becomes more and more apparent that something terrible is going to happen. Each rumble of the train feels like one step closer to disaster. The play is unsettling on several levels: what happens, how the characters feel about it, and most of all, how the audience gets drawn into enjoying cruelty. My guest had never seen A Red Orchid production before and I described the company to him as weird, but classy. To those who enjoy when they take on darker works, Evening at the Talk House is them at their most chilling.

“Evening at the Talk House” will continue at A Red Orchid Theatre at 1531 N Wells Ave, Chicago thru November 19, with performances as follows:

Thursdays:          8:00 pm

Fridays:               8:00 pm

Saturdays:           3:00 pm and 8:00 pm

Sundays:              3:00 pm

Running time is ninety minutes.

Tickets are $30-35; to order, call 312-943-8722 or visit ARedOrchidTheatre.org. Metered parking is available on the street.

To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “Evening at the Talk House”

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