The Dys-Engagement Party

By Sarah Spitz

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The Dys-Engagement Party
From left, Mark Jacobson, Brian Lee Huynh, Wendie Malick, Lauren Worsham, Richard Bekins, Bella Heathcote, Jonah Platt and Brian Patrick Murphy in The Engagement Party at Geffen Playhouse.
October 27, 2023 There’s quite a life-changing event unfolding onstage at The Geffen Playhouse with “The Engagement Party,” by Samuel Baum. The tautly twisting plot and well-oiled ensemble cast bring forth a complex, funny, tragic and intricate story about what simmers below the surface of people’s lives. When the party ends, we can only imagine that nothing will ever be same for or between any of the characters. During this evening we encounter love, laughs, resentment, suspicion, class bias, ideological clashes, and one very big reveal, but most of all, broken trust. So what happens to cause all this dysfunction? Jewish Josh (Jonah Platt) and his WASP wife-to-be Katherine (Bella Heathcote) are throwing a dinner party for Katherine’s parents and their closest friends from college (and one even earlier) in their super swanky Park Avenue duplex. The set is a perfectly designed contemporary dwelling (2007 style) with the just-right neutral tones, the appropriate art on the wall, a modern hanging chandelier over a dining table set for eight, a rotating stage that reveals both living room, an impossibly tall white kitchen, and a spiral staircase leading to an upstairs bedroom. Much like a French farce in reverse, there are lots of characters exiting and entering doors in different combinations, as they commingle interchangeably, depending on who’s dealing with what issue fraying at the seams of their social fabric. Hints of what’s to come begin with jokes about Katherine being a “shiksa” (non-Jew), followed by a feeling of strained cordiality between Josh and Katherine’s Dad Conrad (Richard Bekins). Mother Gail (the always excellent Wendie Malick) is wearing an arm crutch because she’s being treated for cancer. Next to arrive is Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), an Asian American “bro” and his “earth mother” wife Haley (Lauren Worsham), followed by schlubby Alan (Mark Jacobson), a Columbia professor who tilts pretty far left. Meanwhile, the phone rings, and it’s Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy) calling to say he’s running late. When he gets there, he’s like a fish out of water: a loud, cursing Italian-American military dude in a loud Hawaiian shirt, with grease on his hands, whose flight from his army base in Alabama was delayed in Pittsburgh so he’s driven in from there. He’s Josh’s best friend from childhood and knows that this new, rich guy façade covers up a lot of hurt, both old and new.
From left, Lauren Worsham, Bella Heathcote, Jonah Platt, Richard Bekins, Wendie Malick and Mark Jacobson in The Engagement Party, directed by Darko Tresnjak.
“Capitalist” Conrad and “Communist” Alan exchange mild sniping remarks about using wealth for luxury instead of helping humankind. Josh once worked briefly for Conrad and was his waiter at the posh club he belonged to. Josh went out on his own and became rich and successful. Alan has always had an unrequited crush on Katherine. Kai works for Josh, but resents that his bonus was smaller than expected, and he asks Josh for a favor that Haley expressly told him not to do. Haley is suffering from depression and wants to get back to her medical research work. Conrad runs a major cancer institute. Johnny knows why Josh quit working for Conrad and wonders why he hasn’t told Katherine or the others.

The action whorls around the intricacies of relationships between each and the other, as they pair off with differing dynamics for a very complex but well-choregraphed set of events. To reveal the details is to spoil the play. But Josh has bought Katherine a Hand-painted Prehistoric Beginnings Mural, 1977 (as yet uninsured) $300,000 diamond ring, which appears to go missing when a glass of wine is spilled on the table.

Every twist and turn, every pairing of different characters brings out a different simmering stew of emotions. Early in the play, Conrad tells the story of an exquisite gingerbread house that Katherine made when she was a child, including stained glass windows made of melted sugar. But her cousin breaks off the chimney to eat it. Conrad says no one will notice, but Katherine does. And because its perfection was ruined, she throws the whole thing away. It foreshadows the fragility of the reality that has been constructed around her and how it will be shattered.

Jonah Platt, left, and Brian Patrick Murphy
One further clue comes when Kai talks about his nine-month-old child, who “loves the peek-a-boo and screams his head off when we leave the room.” Katherine, who has a background in pediatrics, replies that he’s learning “Object permanence… It’s when you know an object is still there, even if something else suddenly blocks your view of it and you can’t see it directly anymore.” That could be the log line for the central thesis of this play.

The Engagement Party runs at The Geffen Playhouse in Westwood Village through November 5.

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for print and online publications.

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October 27, 2023