Sunday, July 03, 2022

Life & Style

The Art of Talking About a Play Without Giving It Away

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Zach Appelman Photo courtesy of Zach Appelman

Zach Appelman (Photo courtesy of Zach Appelman)

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Beth Riesgraf and Zach Appelman in rehearsal for Engagement Party at Hartford Stage

Photo by Liss Couch-Edwards courtesy of Hartford Stage

Beth Riesgraf and Zach Appelman in rehearsal for Engagement Party at Hartford Stage (Photo by Liss Couch-Edwards courtesy of Hartford Stage)

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From left, Richard Bekins, playwright Samuel Baum, director Darko Tresnjak, Mia Dillon, and Beth Riesgraf rehearse for Engagement Party at Hartford Stage. Photo by Liss Couch-Edwards courtesy of Hartford Stage

From left, Richard Bekins, playwright Samuel Baum, director Darko Tresnjak, Mia Dillon, and Beth Riesgraf rehearse for Engagement Party at Hartford Stage. (Photo by Liss Couch-Edwards courtesy of Hartford Stage)

There are plays - often suspense-thrillers that have big surprises toward the end and to know in advance takes away the joy of its clever twists. Think Deathtrap or Murder on the Orient Express.

Then there are other plays that reveal themselves in stages, through little discoveries, dialogue, and direction that, if known ahead of time, also diminish the fun for audiences.

So is the case with the world premiere of The Engagement Party, which is all about deceptions. The play, by Samuel Baum, is presented at Hartford Stage Thursday, Jan. 10 through Sunday, Feb. 3. It's recommended for those 18 and older.

The theater tries its best to convey information about the new work, calling it a "suspenseful contemporary drama [that] centers on a young couple's intimate gathering with family and friends to celebrate their engagement—an evening that leads to a spiraling sequence of events and revelations that will irrevocably change their lives."

"It's all about secrets and lies, one on top of another and soon the play is going fast and furious," says Zach Appelman, who last starred at Hartford Stage in the title role in Hamlet.

This time out he plays a young hedge fund operator—"a self-made millionaire" who grew up in working class Brooklyn—and there's an engagement party in which he's joined by college and work friends and his future in-laws.

"Samuel's writing is very sharp and witty and he's got a great hand with snappy, intelligent dialogue," says Appelman of the swift-moving, intermission-less play that also features veteran actor Mia Dillon.

The Engagement Party is Darko Tresnjak's penultimate play he will be staging as the out-going artistic director at the theater. His final show will be the season closer in May, the world premiere of a new musical, The Flamingo Kid.

Tresnjak says he remembered a workshop of The Engagement Party that delighted him about 10 years ago when he was a director at San Diego's Old Globe.

"But then Sam's television career started to kick up and we sort of lost touch," Tresnjak says. "This play is what opened all the doors for him in Los Angeles. People suggested that he turn the play into a movie and I'm relieved that he didn't."

The cleverness of the script stayed with Tresnjak over the years and in thinking about his final season at Hartford Stage, he decided to see if the play was still available. It was, and together Baum and Tresnjak worked on the script some more to make it even more timely.

"There were certain social and political developments lately that made me think it could pack an even greater punch," says Tresnjak. "If I say there's something in the play that really corresponds with how I see humanity and my world view, it would seem pretty sinister—but that's the case.

"In some respects it is a comedy, a dark domestic comedy that's unsparing," he continues. "It has a little bit of a love child of playwrights J.B.Priestly [An Inspector Calls, Time and the Conways] and Yasmina Reza [God of Carnage, Art]. Things like family reunions and gatherings of friends that go hopelessly wrong are not so much fun in life, but it's fun to watch on stage.

"The plotting itself is the message," he says, without giving any details other to say there is an engagement ring "and the ring is the ninth character in the play. And the design of the production [by Alexander Dodge] is rather like that ring. When you turn the diamond you see the glimmers, you see its chards and you get a different perspective from different angles. It's very beautiful but it cuts, too. It's like the play itself."

Frank Rizzo is a freelance journalist who lives in New Haven and New York City. He has been writing about theater and the arts in Connecticut for nearly 40 years.



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