nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 7, 2008
Ah, the dinner party—reliable setting for many a sophisticated and/or scathing examination of societal mores. You know the kind of thing: elegantly dressed and coiffed folk seated on expensive-looking furniture, surrounded by beautiful objets and sipping exclusive wines from exquisite crystal, all the while engaging in snappy repartee about this and that, conversation filled with wit and undertone.
This is just what happens in Brian Parks's The Invitation...until it isn't. In this impassionedly vitriolic dark satire, Parks has a field day making fun of America's cultural and social elite. And he's not handling them with kid gloves; no, the gloves are definitely off as Parks moves in for the kill. I won't tell you what happens to make this dinner party quite unlike any other I've seen depicted on stage, but it gets right to the heart of the sick cults of entitlement and greed that have made the current decade into a new Gilded Age here in America.
Of course, it all begins innocently enough. Dave and Marian are hosting their friends John and Sarah (another married couple) and Steph for a dinner celebrating Steph's birthday. They've just finished another of Marian's amazing dinners (something with lamb) and are savoring some fine wine as they chat about this and that. Dave is in publishing, John's a high-powered attorney, and Steph is an equally high-powered advertising exec. Sarah does good works at a foundation she runs. And Marian is a very opinionated socialite:
MARIAN: Vegetarianism—it's just sort of retarded.
SARAH: "Retarded" is not a word one uses these days.
MARIAN: I'm sorry. "Mongoloid," then.
MARIAN (happily coining term): "Neo-Cretinism."
SARAH: Now, now—
MARIAN: Then let them choose their own word.
MARIAN: Just don't ask them to spell it!
The banter flies fast and furious—this is the kind of dialogue of which Parks is a master—and as it does, we discover that Dave and Marian are a sort of latter-day George and Martha (a la Albee's Virginia Woolf). He is a bit of a failed writer, we learn, and she offers no encouragement whatsoever. He's an intellectual and a liberal thinker; she's a consummate consumer and as right-winged a bigot as one can imagine. She delights in deflating him at every turn, and he covers up his deflation with wordplay and esoterica and alcohol.
Well, things are bound to explode, and they do. The second half of the play is less sure-footed than the first in terms of plotting (it could probably use a bit of trimming), but it succeeds in making us pay lots of attention to Parks's ideas, which feel subversive and dangerous and enormously important and prescient.
Here's another example, one that I think gives a sense of the unexpected gravitas of the piece without spoiling it:
JOHN: The law! The law is nothing but manipulation. If the law were sacrosanct, it would never change, but it changes every day. It's a bargain place among the powerful, a souk with neckties and less spitting.
STEPH: That's a bit cynical.
JOHN: That's like calling gravity cynical. It just is. I know—I make a fat living off it.
MARIAN: But people need morals.
JOHN: I agree. The only thing worse than hypocrisy is anarchy.
DAVID: Maybe that'd be a good thing, huh?
MARIAN: Anarchy would make David miserable. All the canceled Mozart concerts and shattered Bordeaux bottles.
The Invitation is impeccably directed by frequent Parks collaborator John Clancy, who here slows down his trademark rat-ta-tat-tat comic pacing just enough so that everything in the play—the hilarious stuff and the scary stuff—has time to sink in. David Calvitto (Dave), Paul Urcioli (John), Leslie Farrell (Steph), Katie Honaker (Marian), and Eva van Dok (Sarah)—all veterans of previous Clancy and/or Parks productions—offer what feel like flawless performances; this is as simpatico an ensemble as you'll ever see on stage.
The comedy here is frothy in places, and mordant and lethal in others. It's designed to deliver jolts, to shake up its audience—and it does. Certainly its timing, two months before a very important Presidential Election, cannot be coincidental.
It is likely that few of the Marians of the world will actually see The Invitation, but for the rest of us, it's a potent and frighteningly funny wake up call.