Curtain Call: A most engaging play at Hartford Stage

There are two things to keep in mind when attending Hartford Stage. The first is if Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak is directing, then you are guaranteed a highly polished and memorable production. The second thing is that he goes all out with sets for his plays. This one, designed by Alexander Dodge, will blow you away and is as important as a character. Since Samuel Baum’s “The Engagement Party” is a world premiere under Darko’s direction, then you know he pulls out all the stops and you are in for a treat.

Beth Riesgraf and Zach Appelman star in The Engagement Party, which runs through Feb. 3 at the Hartford Stage. — Photo courtesy of Hartford Stage

From the title, one might expect a happy, loving occasion and that is exactly how the play begins. It doesn’t take long before the cheerful opening moves from toasting the happy couple to heated flare-ups. This play asks “how much do you trust your friends and family?” It also asks “how many family secrets are eventually and unexpectedly revealed?”

There are many surprises in this fast moving play. Playwright Baum hits all the vital tension spots as the guests reveal more than their occupations. Suspicion runs rampant as something that is missing must be found. Josh and Katherine are hosting the party in their very expensive upscale apartment on Park Avenue. They invited friends and family to celebrate their engagement because they want to share their joy and happiness with the guests. Katherine’s parents are the first to arrive. Josh is a very successful and rich man who works on Wall Street. His home is tastefully luxurious. However, there seems to be friction between the host and his future father-in-law.

Friction also arises when Kai, Josh’s employee, asks for a favor and does not get the answer he is hoping for. Kai is also an instigator when he points out that unlike Josh, his good friend Alan is a morally upright person. This is because Alan donates all the money he earns that is in excess of what he needs to live well to various charities. Then the discussion begins on the morality or lack thereof of being wealthy. If that’s not enough to fuel sparks, Katherine’s friend Haley gets angry at her husband Kai when she learns he asked Josh for a favor. Even Josh’s good friend Johnny is suddenly a suspect. Soon the fun-filled party becomes a suspenseful whodunit.

The cast as usual at Hartford Stage is terrific. Beth Riesgraf plays an elegant and gracious hostess. Zach Appelman as Josh perfectly adds plausible doubt to each and every guest. Appelman brings his character to life with every facial expression that suggests foul play. Mia Dillon is her usual talented self as she takes on the role of Gail, the future mother-in-law, and Richard Bekins as the father-in-law-to-be takes the role straight to the heart. Completing this excellent and believable cast are performances by Teddy Bergman, Brian Lee Huynh, Brian Patrick Murphy, and Anne Troup.

Alexander Dodge’s two-tier rotating set is spectacular. Whether upstairs or downstairs or on the winding staircase leading up to the second floor, everything about this set is clean, dripping with class, and quite simply amazing.

Baum’s play is loaded with clever twists and turns, none of which I have revealed so that you may enjoy the shocking ending as much as this reviewer. The action moves quickly since the play is only 85 minutes with no intermission. Still, it’s amazing how much can happen and how much can be revealed in so little time. It plays through Feb. 3. Box office: 860-527-5151.

Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: jgrochman@gmail.com.

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