THE ENGAGEMENT PARTY – Hartford Stage

ASK ME NO QUESTIONS, I’LL TELL YOU NO LIES

Playwright Samuel Baum perfectly sets his cleverly constructed new play THE ENGAGEMENT PARTY in January 2007, just as the big, financial bull market that led to the 2008 collapse was humming along. Even among the experts who knew better, no one acknowledged the shaky fundamentals underpinning the boom. Ask-Me-No-Questions-I’ll-Tell-you-No-Lies is exactly what binds together the eight characters who populate Baum’s taut , 80-minute, one act, mystery at Hartford Stage.

Katherine and Josh, both 30ish, are celebrating their wedding engagement in their newly redesigned, multi-million dollar Park Avenue apartment. Katherine's background is Upper East Side and Ivy-educated privilege. Her mother, Gail, is a gently mannered woman of Southern pedigree. Her big financier father is all old-line WASP, private clubs and philanthropy. Katherine’s fiancé, Josh, is a poor Jewish kid from Brooklyn whose street smarts led him to rapid success in hedgefunds. Besides the fabulous apartment, the emblem of his success is Beth’s $300,000 custom-designed engagement ring Beth shows off to their guests.

Besides Katherine's parents, Katherine and Josh friends are: Haley, Katherine’s college roommate and researcher MD; Haley’s husband, who works for Josh at Josh's hedge fund firm; Johnny, Afghan vet, roughneck Italian-American and Josh’s best friend form their Brooklyn childhood; and, Alan, a socialist intellectual and Katherine's male BFF from Harvard.

Playwright Baum deftly weaves character exposition into the cocktail chat and the intricacies on how their relationships ostensibly intersect: the fault lines -along educational, generational, political, and cultural lines - get disguised over pre-dinner pleasantries. At the dinner table, something happens: I won’t say what because it is so integral to the mystery. Divisions among the guests - and their secrets - get exposed. Josh’s suspicious grow about who might be responsible. Just when an audience might expect the story to be just an innovative reinterpretation of Who-Done-It, a la the board game CLUE, Baum’s tale takes a dark, unexpected turn, but one, to his credit, which is perfectly congruent with everything we’ve learned about the characters before. Again, no spoiler here, but the bonds of trust among all the characters get tested, redefining terms of lies and deception.

The ensemble cast is superb. The hardest roles of Josh and Beth are executed by Zach Appelman and Beth Riesgraf but the most distinctive, subtlest acting comes from two veterans, Richard Bekins and Mia Dillon as Katherine’s parents. Darko Tresnjak directs as usual with steady, assured hand: His unusually measured pacing of the dialogue in the first half pays off. Scenic designer Alexander Dodge once again for Hartford Stage creates an eye-popping marvel of a set – a ravishing, modern two-story apartment that crystallizes Baum’s theme. With its sleek, glistening surfaces and crisp, uncluttered spaces, the apartment leaves no place for anyone in this engagement party to hide.

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