The Engagement Party – Review by Tom Holehan

Hartford Stage presented the year’s best play last September with their world premiere production of Bess Wohl’s “Make Believe”. Now it looks like they will also be behind this year’s best play, “The Engagement Party”, a world premiere by Samuel Baum currently onstage in Hartford. Happy New Year!

A festive engagement party finds successful Jewish Wall Street broker Josh (Zach Appelman) in pre-wedding bliss mode with his beautiful Shiksa bride-to-be, Katherine (Beth Riesgraf)). Attending the party are Katherine’s mom and dad (Mia Dillon and Richard Bekins) along with some mutual friends. There’s lots of positive chatter and a breezy sense of bonhomie and cheer until Katherine’s $300,000 engagement ring suddenly goes missing. From that moment on, the party goes to hell.

Tightly written and brimming with suspense and tension, Baum charts territory explored by recent contemporary plays like “God of Carnage” and “Art” which also dealt with the fragile nature of civility. At a brisk running time of 85 minutes with no intermission, “The Engagement Party” is smart, funny and disturbing. Long hidden secrets and lies come to a boil as casual comments and jokes told early on in the evening take on a more troubling significance as time passes. Trust becomes just another word as accusations fly and long-term relationships are put under the microscope. Part A.R. Gurney, part Edward Albee, Baum is nonetheless an original, fresh voice and his play is an intricate combination of slick storytelling enhanced with carefully placed twists all leading to a devastating final line.

Under Darko Tresnjak’s taut direction, the casting in Hartford shines. Appelman, who proved a magnetic Hamlet two seasons ago at Hartford Stage, balances Josh’s romantic nature neatly with his naked ambition in a performance that manages to continually surprise. Beth Riesgraf’s Katherine wears her pedigree to privilege very comfortably and Dillon and Bekins play her Waspish parents to a fare-thee-well. As the various friends of the couple, Brian Lee Huynh, Brian Patrick Murphy, Anne Troup and Teddy Bergman all add invaluable doses of conflict and tension to the proceedings.
The immensely talented scenic designer Alexander Dodge, whose work at Hartford Stage has included “Anastasia”, “Rear Window” and “Twelfth Night” among many others, outdoes himself here with a two-story, rotating set detailing an upscale Park Avenue apartment complete with living/dining room, kitchen and bedroom. As always, Matthew Richards (lighting) and Jane Shaw (sound) contribute polished, distinctive work. I would only quibble a little with some of costumer Joshua Pearson’s choices especially for Josh, who looks far too casual for the special occasion.

As for Samuel Baum’s debut work, it is nearly perfectly crafted and only occasionally relies on a contrivance or two. I won’t reveal anything specific, however, since part of the great fun of “The Engagement Party” is seeing it fresh and experiencing everything Baum has sent your way unencumbered by spoilers. This play is a real treat.

“The Engagement Party” continues at Hartford Stage through February 3. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at: 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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