Chicago Theatre Review
Whatever Happened to…
Evening at the Talk House – A Red Orchid
Anyone who’s ever been part of a closely knit social group, such as a theatre company, will strongly identify with the characters created by actor, comedian and playwright, Wallace Shawn. The occasion for meeting at the Talk House is a 10th anniversary reunion of the cast and crew who were all part of a memorable play called “Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars.” This production opens with Robert, the former successful playwright of this decade-old drama, now a famous television writer, delivering a long reflective monologue, as he slowly enters through the audience. Played with gentle ease, a comforting reassurance and natural confidence by the incredibly talented Lance Baker, Robert gradually works his way down the stairs and onto Director and Scenic Designer Shade Murray’s elegantly sophisticated social club room setting.
This very cozy environment feels warm and welcoming. It’s an old haunt, a place where any member of Red Orchid’s sold-out audience would enjoy spending a leisurely evening, chatting away with friends. It sports several seating areas, each with comfy chairs, sofas and coffee tables. There’s an upright piano, a backgammon gaming area and an open bar. The exposed brick walls are adorned with beautiful abstract paintings and there are hallways that lead off to the kitchen and the library. In fact, the room even opens up to include the assembled audience. For those who’ve been to New York’s Joe Allen’s, it’s that kind of place.
Ushered into the genteel, embracing environment of the Talk House comes Dick, a down-on-his-luck actor who’s covered in cuts and bruises. He’s an unexpected guest who’s been living temporarily in one of the second floor club rooms, hiding out from…someone. Played by H.B. Ward with the kind of resigned strength that rises from a growing sense of personal doom and despair, Dick drops hints that a group of his so-called friends are responsible for attacking and beating him up. Robert, however, doesn’t register as much shock at this revelation as one would expect. His response is almost indifferent or unconcerned, as if this occurrence was an everyday expectation.
Millie, the club’s maternal, longtime owner and hostess, leads the rest of the guests from the library and into the tasteful refinement of the main room. She’s portrayed with gentle caring and warmth by stage and TV actress Natalie West. We meet Annette (an enthusiastic Kirsten Fitzgerald), who was once a successful theatrical costume designer; Jane, played with candor by Sadieh Rifai, a sometime actress, currently employed as a waitress at the Talk House; Tom (played by articulate and dashing Miguel Nunez), the handsome theatrical leading man who’s now the star of the popular TV show, for which Robert is the head writer; Bill, embodied with no nonsense fervor by Noah Simon, is a former theatrical producer who’s also found employment elsewhere; and Ted, portrayed by the affable Doug Vickers, was once a notable composer, but now only tinkles the ivories at smaller venues, like the Talk House. But the world has apparently changed, and not for the better.
Through all the run-of-the-mill reminisces about old times and the bitchy small talk about long-forgotten co-workers, we’re shocked to discover that the Theatre is now dead. Plays, such as Robert’s hit from ten years ago, no longer exist. The principal form of entertainment in this dystopian world is television, possibly reality TV. Then the conversation shifts. Everyone who formerly earned his living in show business must now find employment in other places, including an appalling new government-led program. Several of the good-natured, seemingly compassionate characters in this circle of friends currently freelance as assassins. They nonchalantly supplement their incomes by working to put an end to the “people who would harm us.”
It’s at this point that Robert’s early musing that “to know someone well is a phrase from another time,” really hits home. Who are these folks? The group asks each other, “whatever happened to so-and-so?” And, although the unseen characters they discuss aren’t familiar to the audience, the group’s offhand answers sound casually conversational, yet callous.
Robert blames the tone of the country on the arbitrary mood swings of the nation’s fictional, all-powerful leader. And that tone is dangerous. Former friends, colleagues and loved ones are erratically shot, hanged, poisoned or brutally beaten, as dictated by some unmentioned administrative office. But this has become the accepted way of this Brave New World, and people, we are reminded, eventually get used to anything.
Wallace Shawn’s new one-act is often amusing but quietly shocking and unsettling. Directed with grit and gumption by Shade Murray, and cast with Red Orchid’s typical brilliant ensemble of actors, particularly the excellent Lance Baker and H. B. Ward, this is a chilling and prophetic look at where our country may, under its current leadership, be ultimately headed. The next time someone asks, “Whatever happened to…?” listen carefully to the response. It may not be what you expect.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 29-November 19 by A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 312-943-8722 or by going to www.aredorchidtheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.