Wallace Shawn's new play is an odd beast. It's (rather long) set up is a reunion of those involved in a play 10 years earlier at their old haunt The Talk House, for an evening reminiscing and to enjoy host Nellie's (Anna Calder-Marshall) snacks. The Talk House has seen better days but as the former colleagues gather it quickly becomes obvious that the world has perhaps seen better days too.
The world of writer Richard (Josh Hamilton) and the others is one that is familiar and not, as if it is running in parallel, has jumped a track.
spoilers Wallace Shawn's character Dick is a washed up actor who has never replicated his early success and is living temporarily at The Talk House while he recovers from a beating. His friends carried out the violent attack for his own good because he was about to step over the line "you know". It's a warning, a reminder to be nice.
But that isn't the worst of it. There is a Government policy, that no one is supposed to talk about but everyone does, of killing anyone perceived to be a threat. You can get a job choosing targets which meet the criteria like getting a job working in a shop. You can also get a job as one of the assassins, a menial job for those who need the money. There are lots of different ways people can be murdered, not all of them swift, and of course there is discrimination on the method of murder depending on the status and popularity of the person targeted.
What starts off as fairly light, amusing conversation with a dark edge gets slowly more bleak and the laughter increasingly comes from the characters rather than from the audience. And here is my main problem with the play: it is a relentlessly bleak. It has shades of our own society but I don't subscribe to the view that mankind is all that bad. After the initial few laughs you are left watching a bunch of nasty people saying nasty things that don't even raise a guilty chuckle. And it is so relentless is actually becomes numbing.
With all the talk of murder it is inevitable that someone is going to 'get it' at some point and I was disappointed it wasn't the lot of them.
At the beginning of the play Robert talks about how theatre is no longer popular, that entertainment is television-based. Given the subsequent direction of conversation and the vision of society Wallace Shawn has created does this mean that he believess theatre helps society retain a degree of civility?
In the end, An Evening At The Talk House starts out as one thing and becomes something different which is slightly alienating. It feels like a punchy short play about the distortion of what is good and nice in society that has been stretched to an hour and forty minutes. Another play that won't be going on my favourite list.
It runs in rep at the National Theatre's Dorfman space until March 30.