Sorry, was that too curt? Rest assured, the sentiment is based on a seemingly endless series of wretched performances dating much farther back than Matthew Broderick’s turn in the New Group’s American premiere production of Wallace Shawn’s new play, Evening at the Talk House. Though it could come off as UNFAIR to so single out one actor in reviewing an ensemble piece, Mr. Broderick may actually prevent any cogent analysis of this particular production given the play’s structure.
Mr. Shawn’s work has always ranged from being abstrusely brilliant to brilliantly abstruse, with the lyrical esotericism of the latter often obscuring basic coherence for many, making his plays harder to evaluate for others than to analyze for oneself. Even so, very few other playwrights have such an intellectually facile way with words, and though deep studies of his texts on the page are often required to fully comprehend their intricacy, his productions always offer at least the superficial joy of being audibly showered with literary wit, even if some audiences prefer not to feel like they’re perpetually trying to keep up with the cognitive swirls of the scribe.
Unfortunately, Evening at the Talk House does not provide even a smidgeon of this blissful experience. Scott Elliot’s stiff direction is definitely a factor, but the sheer power of Shaw’s words have previously transcended the inferior contributions of those tasked with bringing them to life. That is, until Matthew Broderick came along.
Any fans of straight drama can attest to the importance of opening monologues. From a dramaturgical perspective, this convention allows the writer not only to introduce usually the lead character, but also to establish the necessary exposition, ideas, and themes that the audience should keep in mind as the play unfolds. When faced with a Wallace Shawn confounder, these key scraps of information are like morsels of food thrown at the soon-to-be ravenously starved.
Yet those same people familiar with this tradition also probably associate painful memories with it. Bereft of the dynamically engaging tête-à-tête dialogue of most multi-person scenes, performers responsible for these soliloquies must maintain everyone’s attention with almost no other aid besides their own oratory prowess. It is absolutely vital for them to communicate the flowing stream of words as clearly as possible to ensure the audience sufficiently enters the play after entering the theatre. Though I’m no Lee Strasberg, an undoubtedly important means in achieving this goal is to differentiate the emphasis that thespians place on various parts of their speech, specifically to emphasize the ultimately meaningful moments.
Whomever thought Matthew Broderick was the man for this job seriously needs to consider pursuing a new vocation. Ever since The Producers – a role tailor-written to his…highly specific talents – Leo Bloom has zombied his way from role to role, forcing on each his boyish tendency to monotonously deliver lines like he’s reading directly from the script. When he was legitimately a boy (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; War Games), it worked. When smart directors cast him in intentionally unsettling roles made even creepier by his man-childishness (Alexander Payne, Election), it also worked. Yet for the vast majority of his recent career, he’s kamikazed potentially superior writing with his static, often apathetic demeanor.
Evening at the Talk House is no exception. Whereas the lengthily verbose start to the play should prepare for the forthcoming elliptical conversations, Broderick’s dullness instead bores the audience into submission, never to recover. Perhaps this was indeed a rare, complete misfire for Shaw, but intriguing textual strands can still be detected at various later points, which leads me to believe they could’ve become a connective tissue through-line making sense of the proceedings if properly begun; heck, this was a text that both Scott Rudin – undoubtedly the most successful impresario working on Broadway today – and London’s National Theatre – undoubtedly one of the most prestigious theatrical institutions in the world – decided to produce. The path from glorious page to dismal stage is of course littered with the bones of past disappointments, but for Evening at the Talk House, it is FAIR to theorize that Matthew Broderick may be the culprit standing over this production’s corpse.
So yes, I stand by my initial curt statement: (with respect) please retire, Mr. Broderick – it looks like you’re having as much fun up there as we are in the crowd, which is to say, none at all. Why not just put us all out of our misery?
While I’m on this subject of misery (that joke will make sense in a few paragraphs), here are the top (bottom?) 3 performers working today most deserving of a pleading retirement missive such as this one:
3. Matthew Broderick
- See above. His bafflingly lingering star power can and does still greenlight otherwise uncommercial productions and independent films, saving him from being higher lower on this list.
2. Sigourney Weaver
- She’ll deservedly always be fondly remembered for the Alien film franchise, but Ripley is just as much of a persistent line-reader as the subject of this diatribe (note: wooden performances have long been a staple of the action movie genre, somewhat forgiving her most famous performances AND “depriving” a certain actor starring in a certain flick now in theaters from the ignoble fate of being included in this list; let’s just say he’s lucky that I A) respect Ted/Neo/John, and B) couldn’t think of a fifth choice to close out a full top bottom 5.
1. Bruce Willis
- Die Hard and Pulp Fiction are two of my favorite pieces of celluloid ever – and he’s a big reason why for both – but he’s totally given up of late, torpedoing noble efforts. When even Wes Anderson can’t cajole you to care, and when even Woody Allen fires you, and when even your dreadful performance on the stage and behavior behind the scenes unintentionally scare audiences and your collaborators – respectively – as much as Stephen King’s original story, then the time has come for you to hang it up. He’s clearly a disaster to work with nowadays, only in the business for, well, the business. You have enough money, Brucie, so stop torturing innocent artists and audiences alike by, respectfully, retiring.