Wallace Shawn is up to his old tricks again: pricking the conscience of right-on, left-leaning theatergoers. No one does that better than this impish, idiosyncratic polymath, who, at 72, still comes across as precocious — probably because we resent him flagging our complacent complicity in all the world’s ills. More so than “The Fever” and “The Designated Mourner,” “Evening at the Talk House” — premiering at the National Theatre in partnership with Scott Rudin — fingers theater for its redundancy and its hypocrisy. But does that make its critique sharper or simply self-defeating?
Shawn takes us along to a reunion. A gaggle of theatricals have regrouped at their old hangout, the Talk House, to reminisce about the show they made a decade ago. The bar hasn’t changed a bit: Nellie (Anna Calder-Marshall) still serves the same snacks, actress-waitress Jane (Sinead Matthews) still pours out the punch and the decor — oak panels and a hand-painted mural — remains intact, quaint as ever.
The artists, on the other hand, have. Writer Robert (Josh Hamilton) and leading man Tom (Simon Shepherd) deserted theater for television. The composer trades in jingles; the wardrobe mistress, private tailoring. There has been, they all agree, “a decline in the theatergoing impulse.” Whose fault, you wonder, is that? Ditto their lamenting the state of the bar, despite none remaining regulars.
It’s all prodding at collective culpability, change being the product of innumerable individual choices. Shawn gradually turns the thumbscrews, with a government-led “targeting” program in which out-of-work artists temp as drone operators — a sly and ludicrous image. Some, like Jane, even work in the field, sticking their targets in person. (All this ten days after the attacks in Paris, with Brussels still on lockdown and airstrikes in Syria up for debate.) Those successful enough to avoid such work keep noticeably mum.
This is Shawn’s favorite territory — the messy no-man’s-land between us and them, here and there, or now and then. But he’s also after art itself, suggesting that the cultural economy is as dog-eat-dog as any other economy. Individualism gets into everything and success, as Robert and Tom have found, means selling out and supplanting others.
To that end, Shawn himself plays a veteran actor, Dick — once successful, now gone to seed, and passed over for a part in Robert’s play ten years ago. His fly is undone, his face is bruised and his lip split, courtesy of a beating from some so-called “friends.” Even at home, it seems, people are being bumped off — old showbiz types, in particular. Now, as he shambles through the party, Dick’s a specter of all their futures and a soothsayer of sorts, dropping uncomfortable truths as he tucks into the canapes.
Though all this seems dystopian, it’s far slipperier than that — too close to reality to be dismissed as mere metaphor, but very clearly metaphor nonetheless, with drones making the violence of neoliberal economics explicit. Ian Rickson’s production skates over the surface skilfully; his cast — Calder-Marshall, in particular — handle the comedy with a light touch and his designers, the Quay Brothers, smuggle in apocalyptic imagery under the radar.
Shawn’s cultural critiques fold back on themselves too, as his playfully ambiguous title makes clear, and he gets to have his cake and eat it by arguing the toothlessness of his chosen art form. It lets his mischief run free and, in a way, he sets out to fail. In one brazen move, he swerves into a reading of Robert’s play that, essentially, force-feeds us five minutes of fantastical flim-flam about warring clans, the Marmidons and the Beltramidons, just to see if we sit and suck it up. Surprise, surprise: We do. His abrupt ending, mystifying and unsatisfying, poses a question about what comes next — not onstage, in the play’s world, but off it, in ours.
However, Shawn’s been here before and he’s been here better. For all his quiddity, there are nagging questions, both of self-indulgence and of diminishing returns. It comes down to this: Does flagging theater’s inability to change the world make such a change more likely or is it simply self-defeating? Can it ever be both at once?