Reviewer: Howard Steven Frydman
Theater: The Hartford Stage
Production: The Engagement Party
Playwright: Samuel Baum
Director: Darko Tresnjak
Quality, Innovation, Artistic Excellence, – all virtues that I have oft times equated with the theatrical work of Hartford Stage Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak. Well let me tell you that those “golden hands” of Darko have done it again, the renaissance that he brought forth with such richly satisfying productions as “Anastasia” and “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” continues with the world premiere of another modern masterpiece – “The Engagement Party” written by Samuel Baum, having its world premiere at Hartford Stage, and deftly directed by the one, the only – DARKO TRESNJAK – Bravo! – an incredible event of live theater.
Well let me tell you, “The Engagement Party” is one of the finest bits of theater that I have seen this side of Broadway- it’s firecrackers on the Fourth of July indeed – just wait as things slowly begin to explode – and folks I am extremely certain, this oh so smart sophisticated production, these actors and one extraordinary set designed by Alexander Dodge is Broadway bound and I envision Tony Awards awaiting for all involved.
At plays onset- snippets of the simple ‘30’s tune “Pennies from Heaven” (If you want the things you love, you must have showers) accompanies the entrance of the 8 cast members and foreshadows our invitation to “The Engagement Party”. In fact T.E.P. reminds one of those sophisticated white tie and tails “whodunit” films from the same era, namely “The Thin Man” starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, where just about everyone looks mighty rich and deliciously guilty.
Our setting, a Park Avenue apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side – very beaucoup, just call me Carnegie kinda vibe. Our “Nick and Norah” – the engaged couple- Josh (Zack Appelman) Harvard grad Jewish hedge fund wonder-kin and his intended, the “upper crust” Katherine (Beth Riesgraf). The invitees: Katherine’s affluent and upscale parents – Conrad (Richard Bekins) and Gail (Mia Dillon), college classmates, Alan (Teddy Bergman), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Haley (Anne Troup) and Josh’s childhood pal, Johnny, (Brian Patrick Murphy). The “MacGuffin” – a 300 thousand dollar diamond engagement ring that goes missing at the engagement party is the catalyst that destroys friendships, unleashes unfair accusations, unchains hidden secrets and ultimately may end a relationship before it even gets started.
I must admit this play really struck home and brought me back vividly to a moment in my youth, when in the 3rd grade, an assumed friend’s father showed up on a Sunday afternoon at my home, asked to see me, lowering himself on one knee, looked directly into my fearful nine year old eyes and sternly asked, “Did you steal my son Ira’s “Uncle Ray’s Travel Notebook”? Responding directly back “No- I have my own, why would I need his”? Innocently accused stood I. Our third grade teacher, Mrs. Rimazukis, was contacted and within the hour, she called back with the “tell all” revelation- Ira had left his notebook in his desk at school. I don’t recall ever getting an apology from either Ira or his parents- but indeed the unjust accusation had ended that friendship. I guess we all continue to receive unjust accusations at some point in our lives- and it surely is prime as a first class catalyst as depicted in “The Engagement Party”.
As stated, this is theater at its finest, and I am so pleased that the world premiere of this soon to be “classic” production took place at Hartford Stage. Major kukos and standing ovations to our most excellent cast of eight players, including our two leads Zach Appelman and Beth Riesgraf. A coveted “Howard Noticed You Award” goes to Brian Patrick Murphy as the loyal street wise friend “Johnny” – ya stole the show in every scene~ good job! Now on to Broadway all of ya! The ninth star is the absolutely amazing Monolithic set design by Alexander Dodge. Some may even humbly state that it is the 8th Wonder of the Theatrical World – a sensational two tier set that takes up the entire theater’s center stage- when have you gone to a theater and have heard oohs and awwws for a majestic set design? Several folks sitting in my vicinity could be overheard stating they wished their homes were as smart as this unique rotating set, which included a modern living room with a dining area for eight, spiral staircase, silver surface kitchen appliances and an upper tier master bedroom – hmmm- I did not see a master bath though.
As stated, I am in awe of this production, sophisticated, powerful, fresh spontaneous acting, it strikes a nerve while we await the unveiling of the “thief” and their possible motives. And believe you me there are those moments, when the entire audience is thinking what you are thinking, with audible “ooohs” as you suspect one character and then another. This production is indeed a delightful and a “must see” event. And lastly, thank you Darko Tresnjak for eight years of outstanding work- Bravo! Enjoy.
Tickets for the Hartford Stage production of “The Engagement Party” are on sale now and can be purchased by calling (860) 527-5151 or by visiting http://www.hartfordstage.org. Weeknight and evening performances begin at 7:30 p.m. Matinee performances are Saturdays, Sundays and select weekdays at 2 p.m.
Howard Steven Frydman is General Manager and Executive Director of BATV – Channels 5, 95 & 96 and a member of the CCC. Please feel free to contact Mr. Frydman with your thoughts and ideas at Howards2424@gmail.com.