Have you ever met someone so drab, dull, and talentless that you dread spending time with them? Perhaps you've purposefully left them off an invite list or talked ill of them to other friends. To be passively cruel to others is human nature; we are all somewhat guilty of thinking ourselves objectively superior to others and indulging in a secret, shared disdain from time to time. But what happens when cultural and social exceptionalism becomes public policy? What happens when killing these unremarkable individuals is not only legal, but can be gainful employment? And, most importantly, how can the onlookers justify living in such a society?
Evening at the Talk House explores just that, but not perfectly. Set in the titular talk house (a no longer fashionable cocktail lounge) the narrative follows a reunion of actors to celebrate the anniversary of an old play. Drinks are quaffed, food is eaten, and laughs are shared as they catch up, but it soon becomes clear that not all actors have fared as well as others since the hay day of their old show. The disparity of each actors' successes gives the conversation a sense of dramatic urgency when the topic turns to the recent, brutal killings of the unremarkable people they all used to know.
Evening at the Talk House hits the dystopian sweet spot: the world is just one shade removed from our own which makes the unraveling all the more harrowing. The way the production sells the 'not quite right' atmosphere is wonderfully comprehensive: a timed train runs overhead and causes the lights to flicker on key lines of dialogue, murders are discussed with the lightness of idle gossip, and the house lights remain on at points to eerily suggest that the audience is part of this conversation. The stage is well-set for the dark conversations, which are expertly delivered by a very talented cast. Not all roles are perfectly executed, but the talent of the company contributes to the overall stellar dystopian setting.
The major pitfall of the production, however, is the lack of depth in its exploration of themes. The praise given above unfortunately only applies to the introduction of the dystopia rather than the development of it. It would have been nice to see a character speak directly on the socially accepted killings rather than talking about them at length and the text would also benefit from a more fleshed out backstory as to how these killings came to be. To compound this issue, the script is riddled with stints where the themes are barely discussed and instead turn to anecdotal details of their time as an acting troupe. While I understand these are meant to build out the backstories of the characters, they only seem to serve as roadblocks to the dark mysteries the audience is dying to unravel.
Overall, Evening at the Talk House is a harrowing piece of dystopian fiction that will chill you with its twist ending. While it never achieves a complex discussion on the ramifications of such a world, the production does a commendable job to immerse you in an alternate reality that only seems one moral left turn away from our own.
Review by Ryan Moore
Evening at the Talk House continues at A Red Orchid Theatre through November 19. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.