When Samuel Baum was writing his play, The Engagement Party, I imagine he was fresh from reading Robert Burns’ poem, “To a Mouse.” You know the one – it’s where Burns writes: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley,.” Or perhaps while he was tapping on his keyboard, Baum was playing Joe South in the background, South singing “The Games People Play” – “Oh the games people play now / Every night and every day now / Never meaning what they say now / Never saying what they mean.” Maybe not, but this tightly-written play about how things can fall apart and the games even best friends play certainly evokes thoughts of both the poem and the song.
Astutely directed by Darko Tresnjak, with a major assist from scenic designer Alexander Dodge, who deftly utilizes the theater’s turntable stage to reveal various rooms in a Park Avenue apartment, this engaging one-act play perceptively plays with the audience’s emotions: a rise and fall, then another rise and fall, and yet another until we get to the denouement that, though expected, is still satisfying.
So, what do we have here? Well, it’s an engagement party that Josh (Zach Appelman) and Katherine (Beth Riesgraf) are hosting for Kate’s family and some close friends. There’s some initial couple-nuzzling between the two and some pickle-arranging and then the guests start to arrive.
First are Kate’s parents, Conrad (Richard Bekins) and Gail (Mia Dillon – kudos for her subtle, hush-puppy Southern accent), both of whom are apparently delighted with the pending marriage of their daughter to Josh. The bell rings, the door opens, and Haley (Anne Troup) and her husband Kai (Brian Lee Huynh) stroll in. At this point it becomes obvious what costume designer Joshua Pearson has brought to the party, for while Kate is dressed in a stylish, clinging gown, Haley, her college friend, is wearing drab clothes that seem to want to shun her body.
Another doorbell ding-dong and Alan (Teddy Bergman) appears, appropriately dressed as the professor he is. The group sits down for some social chit-chat, mostly dealing with how Josh and Kate met and whether Josh, jokingly, really deserves Kate. There’s a slight bit of tension when Conrad questions Alan, a sociology professor, about his antagonism to the consumer society, but the pot, right now, is only on a very low simmer.
A final doorbell, and in bursts Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), Josh’s childhood friend who is back from a recent tour in Iraq. He’s loud, profane (his shirt, compliments of Pearson, says it all) and his entrance jerks the audience out of its expositional lethargy. There’s a sense that things are about to happen, and they soon do.
Given the nature of the play, writing about it opens up many spoiler-pitfalls. I will try to skirt them, but it’s impossible not to mention the engagement ring ($300,000 of diamonds) that Josh has given Kate. This is what Hitchcock would call the MacGuffin, the object that has really no true value to the plot but motivates the characters to act in certain ways and pursue certain goals…and in this case, reveal underlying discontents and several dark secrets. What triggers the rising action of the play is the loss of the ring – it disappeared when Kai spilled some wine while at dinner. Where has it gone? Has someone…horrors!…stolen it?
What follows is the breakdown of friendships as Josh’s suspicions, with underlying motivations that will eventually be revealed, turn from one guest to another. This leads to some intensely emotional confrontations in the living room, the kitchen, and finally a bedroom (as the set turns), all deftly acted out by this superb cast. In the process, the loving, familial, fraternal relationships established in the early exposition are challenged and fractured.
Part of the play’s appeal is that there’s nary a cardboard character on the stage. Baum has peopled his play with flesh-and-blood folks complete with their own fears, desires and ghosts. Thus, as they interact, ostensibly motivated by the ring’s disappearance, the audience is involved. Whether it’s Kai confronting Josh about his suspicions, or Kai challenging Alan about what he has said (or revealed), or Kate confronting Josh about how they met and his true motivations, or a major reveal late in the play that involves Gwen, Conrad, Josh and Kate (the reveal a tad melodramatic; it’s a soap-opera moment but, whatever), it all engages the audience because there have been emotional connections made with these characters.
The danger inherent in plays like The Engagement Party, with its multiple reveals and rising emotions, is that, as things heat up, actors might have a tendency to go over the top. Tresnjak doesn’t allow this to happen. Yes, there’s disillusion and disappointment expressed and voices are raised, but the heightened scenes never become an excuse for the characters to lose their inherent civility. In other words, they tremble on the “eve of destruction” of relationships but pull back from the ultimate abyss – they opt to leave rather than drive a stake into the heart of their relationhips. This makes what has been fractured in the relationships over the course of the evening all the more poignant. Although there are flashes of anger, the operative emotion at the end of the play is sadness and a sense that it all didn’t have to happen, punctuated by a very simple sound, almost inaudible, at the end of the play that is a wonderful theatrical moment.
The pleasure in watching The Engagement Party unfold is that every member of the audience can relate, in one way or another, to what occurs. We have all told “social lies,” we have all become heated and perhaps irritated to the point of mania over something that, in the end, is revealed to be trivial. We have all said things that, with the dawn, we wish we could erase from the tape of life. We have all done things that, over the years, weigh us down, that we form mental scabs over and yet, still, there is pain. The play compresses all of this into one evening’s social gathering that is meant to be joyous and yet becomes a slashing of the fabric that holds us all together.
As I exited the theater, a man in front of me turned to his companion and said. “Wasn’t that a wonderful play?” She nodded and said: “I want to cry for all of them.” Well, yes, you do want to cry for all of the characters because, well, to edit the immortal words of Pogo, “They are us.”
The Engagement Party runs through February 3. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to www.hartfordtsage.org.