Thursday, March 9, 2017

Off-Broadway Reviews—The New Group’s “Evening at the Talkhouse” and “All the Fine Boys”

Evening at the Talkhouse
Written by Wallace Shawn; directed by Scott Elliott
Performances through March 12, 2017
All the Fine Boys
Written and directed by Erica Schmidt
Performances through March 26, 2017
The New Group @ Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Matthew Broderick and Annapurna Sriram in Evening at the Talkhouse (photo: Monique Carboni)

With irony so thick you can’t even cut it with a knife, Wallace Shawn’s Evening at the Talkhouse dramatizes how the United States degenerates into barbarism (random beatings, escalating drone attacks, state-sanctioned murders) after the demise of all things cultural.

Shawn has always tended toward heavy-handedness in his playwriting, but his latest—which premiered in London in 2015, before Trump’s rise—pretends to be a corrosive political satire when it’s really just more sophomoric shock tactics like those in his earlier Aunt Dan and Lemon and The Designated Mourner.

One night at a local joint, artists who put on a play that flopped a decade earlier get together to commemorate the last gasp of an art form that fizzled out in favor of mindless, safe televised junk. Playwright Robert; lead actor Tom; producer (turned agent) Bill; costumer Annette; and composer Ted arrive for drinks, hors d’oeuvres and reminiscing about old times. Also there, hiding in the corner, is Dick, former matinee idol turned shriveled old man who lost out for the lead role in Robert’s play.

Their seemingly amiable discussions quickly morph into conversations about how casual violence is now considered normal, including how some of them—desperately short of cash—have become murderous operatives for the government, whether from afar by directing drones or as hired assassins in other volatile areas of the world.

It all ends up being pointless and muddled, despite Shawn’s dialogue huffing and puffing as it tries desperately to sound menacing and duplicitous. After awhile, a pall sets in, even as the cast tries its hardest to make everything seem creepily ordinary.

Director Scott Elliott has fashioned the performers into a convincingly bemused group. The always reliable Larry Pine (Tom) and Jill Eikenberry (Talkhouse proprietress Nellie) have their good moments, while Talkhouse server Jane is embodied with a terrifying sense of calm strength by Annapurna Sriram. As Robert, Matthew Broderick works his patented laconic delivery for all its worth: when he admits to his own personal decisions, it all sounds even worse through his casual Ferris Buehler intonations. Too bad Shawn’s play doesn’t measure up to its able interpreters.

Isabelle Fuhrmann and Abigail Breslin in All the Fine Boys (photo: Monique Carboni)

All the Fine Boys is a pointed if not particularly resonant play about teenage friends Jenny and Emily, circa the late 1980s, whose raging hormones lead them into close proximity to a couple of young men, with (for one of them) horrific results.

Playwright Erica Schmidt—who also bluntly directs—has these girls’ lingo, actions and relationships down pat (maybe it’s a sort-of self-portrait?), as they sit around bored, eating Pringles and discussing guys. When Jenny meets Joseph, a 28-year-old from the local church, and goes home with him, she hangs on to him for dear life after losing her virginity, while Emily more conventionally flirts with Adam, a 17-year-old high school senior.

Schmidt crosscuts between these two couples, as one becomes ever more strangely unsettling and the other haltingly romantic. But since the ending has been telegraphed the start—the girls arguing over what slasher movie to watch—any dramatic impact is muted. Luckily for Schmidt, Abigail Breslin fearlessly enacts Jenny’s confusion, neediness and self-abasement, even if she (alongside Isabelle Fuhrmann, who engagingly plays Emily) is too old for the 14-year-old she’s playing.

There’s also a nice supporting turn by Alex Wolff—who most recently gave a chilling portrayal of one of the Tsarnaev brothers in the film Patriots Day—as the guitar-playing Adam who makes Emily swoon.

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