Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Review of "The Engagement Party"

What do friends and family really think about each other? What secrets or private thoughts, once unsheathed, may fracture iron-clad friendships or splinter intimate relationships. That’s the takeaway from The Engagement Party, a gripping world premiere production at Hartford Stage.

The evening gathering at the Eastside New York City apartment of Josh (Zach Appelbaum) and Katherine (Beth Riesgraf) is to celebrate their engagement.  Invited to the party are the bride-to-be’s parents, Gail (Mia Dillon) and Conrad (Richard Bekins); and Katherine’s best friend Haley (Anne Troup) and her husband Kai (Brian Lee Huynh).  Also joining the festivities are Alan (Teddy Bergman), a mutual friend and Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), Josh’s childhood pal.

There is gaiety, reminiscing, and a relaxed liveliness to the evening.  Soon, however, cracks begin to appear in the shimmering veneer.  A requested favor, to advance a wife’s career, is flatly denied.  Jealousy over income levels is exposed.  Other tidbits of seemingly unimportant information seep out in conversation.  And then, the simple act of misplacing an engagement ring—valued at $300,000--swiftly ignites the undercurrent of hostility and distrust that has been bubbling under the surface all night long, resulting in a rapid disintegration of civility among the guests and a harrowing secret finally released.

Playwright Samuel Baum has produced a well-written, finely plotted play that is both unsettling and uncomfortable, at times, to watch.  But that makes the production more viewable as its twists and turns keep audience members at the edge of their seats waiting for the next shoe to drop or soul-searching accusation to be made.  His characters are vulnerable, pitiful, and confused.  His gut-wrenching finale is like a punch to the stomach, leaving patrons dazed and in doubt.

The ensemble cast works seamlessly together.  Each actor presents a well-rounded portrayal of their character. 

Director Darko Trenjak self-assuredly guides the troupe of performers, starting off the action with a mannered familiarity before he adroitly begins to reveal the cracks and rifts among the characters.  A play like The Engagement Party needs to be shepherded through its paces carefully for maximum impact.  The director, who ends his stint as Artistic Director at the venerable playhouse this summer, achieves these results with blistering effectiveness.

Scenic Designer Alexander Dodge has crafted a modern-looking, sleek, multi-level apartment that is radiantly lit by Lighting Designer Matthew Richards.  While the rotating structure, revealing three distinct sets is the embodiment of sophistication, it’s non-thrust nature creates too much of a divide between audience and performers. 

The Engagement Party, a superb work where trust and truthfulness is in short supply.  The 85 minute, intermission-less production plays at Hartford Stage through February 3rd.

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