Review: The Sun Won’t Come Out Tomorrow In ‘Evening at the Talk House’ and ‘Ring Twice for Miranda’
By Jil Picariello, Theater Editor, February 17, 2017
Dystopia rules! Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are bestsellers. Yeat’s poem “The Second Coming,” nearly 100 years old, was quoted more in 2016 than any other year in three decades (“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”) In his new book, The World in Disarray, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, explores a world defined by chaos.
Not to be left out, the theater has jumped into the dystopia business with two new plays just opened: Evening at the Talk House, by Wallace Shawn, and Ring Twice for Miranda, by Alan Hruska. Give the time frame for writing, casting, staging, and opening a play, even a small-ish one in an off-Broadway theater, it shows a certain prescience to present a world riddled by anxiety and disorder.
If you like your dystopia served with a cocktail and a clever turn of phrase, try Evening. Set in the near future, at a reunion of theater folks, it feels remarkably close to the present. If you just squint a little, and maybe turn your head, there we are. In fact, to further the likeness, the audience enters directly onto the set: sofas and chairs, a piano, a few lamps. And we are offered drinks and sugary snacks while we mingle with the cast. There’s Jill Eikenberry with a silver tray of drinks. There’s Matthew Broderick, chatting with the arrivals. And there’s Wallace Shawn, in his pajamas, with nasty-looking bruises on his face. Hmmmm.
Once we take our seats, the lights don’t go down. We are part of the action. We are, as the play would have it, complicit. Because this world is our world, kinda. The theater, here, is all but dead (what is it anyway, the playwright in the play asks, but “a small group of humans sitting and staring at another small group of humans”). Instead, everyone watches silly television shows.
Elections are a joke, since they happen more and more often, but the same people keep getting elected. There are poisonings and beatings (from foes and friends—for your own good, it seems). And some folks—including a few at the reunion—are working for the government to target our enemies, who are often those who walk amongst us. The elimination of these “dangers” has become so commonplace, we learn, that even schoolchildren are being taught how to do it.
Doesn’t that all sound fascinating? Unfortunately, it’s not. As compelling as the tale is, it unravels patchily, and revelations lose their impact due to an emotionally confused response from the characters. Are they outraged? Surprised? Deadened? It is their emotional lives, in fact, their very unlike-ness to actual humans, that undercuts the power of a world that has lost its moorings.
Of particular note for his lack of character (in both senses) is Matthew Broderick, who plays (barely) the playwright in the piece. He opens the evening with a long monologue, and his numbing singsong delivery is only prevented from inducing sleep by his occasional bumble and stumble. It’s a disturbing combination of anxiety and boredom. Kind of like the play itself, and perhaps like the totalitarian, anti-elitist, fascistic world it explores. It’s close to our real world in the terrors it evokes, yet its people remind me of no one I’ve ever encountered. If only Shawn were as good with individuals as he is with the world they inhabit.
If you prefer your dystopian future with a touch of humor (and cannibalism!) try Ring Twice for Miranda. Described as a “tragicomedy,” there’s too little of both tragedy and comedy to make it succeed. Both the characters and the jokes are thin, especially the poorly-acted Miranda (Katie Kleiger), a maid in the home of the wealthy (and, of course, evil) Sir. Global economic meltdown has produced a world that is a wasteland, filled with violence, crime, hunger, and cruelty.
There’s a timid butler, a nasty second-in-command, a drug-dealing couple of Brits (their broad accents never explained), and a handyman. And there’s a secret—what does Miranda do for Sir that makes her so valued? Why does he need her? What goes on behind that closed door? Don’t even try to guess—the answer is so odd you never will. Yet you will also feel thoroughly unsatisfied once the secret is revealed.
The answer, in fact, feels false, as does much of the muddled play. The acting is both over-the-top and all over the place, from the stiff Klieger to the bizarrely broad twosome of William Connell and Talia Thiesfield as the drug-dealing duo, who seem to be doing caricatures of stoned British rockers. It’s like they all wandered in from different plays and decided to just hang out for a while.
They’re hanging out on an interesting set at least, which changes from dining room to bedroom to the actual dystopian wilderness itself (garbage drops from the sky like unusually heavy snowfall). But the creativity is wasted in a labored and false story that is nearly as much of a wasteland as the world it inhabits.
Maybe when it comes to the dystopian future we should just stick to the New York Times.
Evening at the Talk House at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street through March 12, 2017. Running time: 1 hr. and 40 min. Written by Wallace Shawn. Directed by Scott Elliott; set design by Derek McLane; costume design by Jeff Mahsie; lighting design by Jennifer Tipton. Cast: Matthew Broderick, Jill Eikenberry, John Epperson, Larry Pine, Wallace Shawn, Claudia Shear, Annapurna Sriram, Michael Tucker.
Ring Twice for Miranda at New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street, through April 16, 2017. Running time: Two hours with one intermission. Written by Alan Hruska. Directed by Rick Lombardo; set design by Jason Sherwood; costume design by Ann Hould-Ward; lighting design by Matthew Richards. Cast: William Connell, Katie Kleiger, Ian Lassiter, Graeme Malcolm, George Merrick, Daniel Pearce, Talia Thiesfeld.
Cover: (l. to r.) Matthew Broderick and Wallace-Shawn in ‘Evening at the Talk House;’ photo: Monique Carboni.