“The Engagement Party”
Hartford Stage is currently presenting a stunning production of Samuel Baum’s shattering world premiere play, “The Engagement Party.” Just from the title of the show, you could think that this play might just be pleasant and elegant. You would be wrong. This is not to say that the production isn’t gorgeous to watch, for it certainly is, thanks in large part to Alexander Dodge’s beautiful set. But “The Engagement Party” is the kind of work that sneaks up on you and shocks you into astonishment and surprise, just when you least expect it.
A play of the caliber of “The Engagement Party” doesn’t come along that often, especially in a premiere production. It also helps that the cast is uniformly wonderful and the direction by Darko Tresnjak is razor-sharp. Bringing to mind such major plays as “Six Degrees of Separation” and “Clybourne Park,” in their impact on an audience, “The Engagement Party” is a deeply significant work that demands a future beyond Hartford Stage.
When the audience arrives at the show, the curtain is up and the sleek and sophisticated set design of a ritzy Park Avenue apartment is immediately apparent, with the dining room table all perfectly arranged for the engagement party. The playwright and director use this inviting image and atmosphere onstage to lure one into a feeling that the whole show is going to be frivolous and fun, as befits a party meant to celebrate the engagement of the central couple of Josh and Katherine (played perfectly by Zach Appelman and Beth Riesgraf).
However, “The Engagement Party” holds a whole host of surprises as the layers of the play are gradually peeled away and one can see that the relationships and connections between the characters hide some pretty major and shocking secrets. It is actually the introduction of the people who come to the party that sets the play in motion, with the inciting incident being that the bride’s extremely expensive wedding ring goes missing, as it is being passed around the dining room table by the eight characters at the party.
I would be loath to reveal anything more about the plot and details of “The Engagement Party” because it would ruin the tremendous effect that this play has on the audience. It would be better to examine the topnotch performances by the first-rate cast. As the newly engaged bride and groom, whose apartment the play takes place in, neither Josh (Zach Appelman) nor Katherine (Beth Riesgraf) are all that they appear to be at the beginning of the show. To the playwright’s credit, each character is flawed, in different ways, and both Appelman and Riesgraf are excellent at playing all the different facets of these characters.
As the bride’s parents, Conrad and Gail, Richard Bekins and Mia Dillon are each superb in every way. Portraying Josh’s coworker Kai, the terrific Brian Lee Huynh is not afraid to show vindictive and unappealing qualities under the surface, and Anne Troup is heartbreaking as his somewhat fragile wife, Haley. Adding to the turmoil in the play, as all the characters keep searching the apartment for the lost wedding ring, Teddy Bergman is wonderful as Alan, who is revealed to be just as complicated and potentially hurtful as anyone else in the show.
It is significant that probably the most unexpected guest at the party, Josh’s bombastic and foul-mouthed childhood friend, Johnny (played ideally by Brian Patrick Murphy) turns out be the most honorable person onstage. But I am getting ahead of myself to reveal anything more about the show. Suffice it is to say, that Darko Tresnjak’s direction is entirely brilliant, as befits a play of this quality. By all means, get to Hartford Stage to see the devastating “The Engagement Party” in all its glory. Running a taut ninety minutes, with no intermission, this breathtaking work is certain to be a play that you will be talking about for a long time after the show has ended.
“The Engagement Party” continues performances at Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT through February 3, 2019. For tickets, please visit www.hartfordstage.org or call the box office at 860-527-5151.
Photo: (L-R): Brian Lee Huynh, Anne Troup, Richard Bekins, Teddy Bergman, Mia Dillon, Brian Patrick Murphy, Beth Riesgraf, and Zach Appelman.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson