Somehow, the time doesn’t feel right for a classic drawing room play about self-congratulatory, upper-class WASPs throwing an engagement party in their soaring Park Avenue apartment. (The future groom may be Jewish, but other than complimenting his bride-to-be on a couple of mainstream Yiddish words she employs correctly, and his Canarsie boyhood, he and the rest wouldn’t be out of place in A.R. Gurney’s Dining Room.)
With theaters falling over themselves to give voice to the underrepresented, Engagement Party, now playing at the Geffen Playhouse, feels like a throwback, not just in its 2007 time frame specifically, but to pre-COVID times generally. The play premiered in Connecticut in 2019, and the shifts in society and theater since then have unfortunately removed much of the punch from Samuel Baum’s script.
That’s not to say there isn’t much to enjoy in this narrative about family secrets and how uneven attainment of wealth affects long-term friendships. There are many laugh lines, a mystery and a well-taken message about the foolishness of trusting anyone. There’s also an over-the-top, two-story revolving monochromatic white set, by scenic designer Alexander Dodge, as ostentatiously chic and expensive as the bride-to-be’s $300,000 engagement ring and her black sheath (costume designer Joshua Pearson).
Baum is the writer of TV series Wizard of Lies, Lie to Me, The Evidence and the new The Irrational. He puts his entertainment expertise in lying and psychological profiling to use in The Engagement Party. What starts out as a light look at a rich and happy couple, Josh (Jonah Platt) and Katherine (Bella Heathcote), turns dark, as celebrants’ lies of omission and commission ultimately spill out.
Katherine’s parents are Conrad (an appropriately patrician Richard Bekins), a Mayflower descendent, and Gail (Wendie Malick), a Southern belle grappling with cancer in the most elegant and seemly ways. Their love for their daughter is clear; they have also embraced her fiancé. This is a golden cocoon.
The friends at first reinforce stability and comfort. Harvard classmates Alan (Mark Jacobson) and married couple Haley (Lauren Worsham) and Kai (Brian Lee Huynh) seem genuinely happy for Katherine and Josh.
The seeds of future rifts are laid by Alan’s engagement gift of an Oxfam donation that has Conrad calling him a Commie. Then there’s the post-college power shift that has Kai working for Josh. Josh’s childhood friend Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy) arrives late; his heavy Brooklyn accent points up the transformation Josh must have put himself through to fit in on Park Avenue.
At the convivial table, a wineglass is knocked over and sets in motion the foreshadowed distrust and blame. Director Darko Tresnjak takes ownership of the script, navigating the characters on a yacht, then guiding them to a tattered lifeboat on rough seas, where cancer patient Gail may end up with the best chance for survival.
The concept of “object of permanence” defined early in the play is not to be for this group. Katherine, for whom life has been smooth sailing, and Josh, who’s worked hard to move up and outshine his humble beginnings, are destined to learn, in the words of Jorge Luis Borges, that “… love doesn’t mean leaning / And company doesn’t mean security. /… kisses aren’t contracts / And presents aren’t promises.”
The Engagement Party runs through Nov. 5 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue in Westwood. Show times are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm, Saturday matinees at 3:00pm, and Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00pm. Tickets are $30-129 and can be purchased here.