THE ENGAGEMENT PARTY Playwright Samuel Baum Discusses Economy of Storytelling
Samuel Baum is like so many playwrights working today – he writes mainly for television.
An accomplished playwright, screenwriter and producer, Baum wrote on all three seasons of the Tim Roth-led crime drama Lie To Me and co-wrote the Robert De Niro-led HBO movie The Wizard of Lies, about the downfall of Bernie Madoff. He is currently an executive producer on the new NBC series The Irrational, which stars theater legend Jesse L. Martin.
Yet Baum’s first love has always been playwriting. So he’s thrilled to be back in a theater with The Engagement Party, a taut and twisty new play now running at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles through Nov 5, with a cast led by Jonah Platt (Wicked) and Wendie Malick (Just Shoot Me!).
The Engagement Party follows a disastrous evening gone wrong in a Park Avenue penthouse in 2007. Old wounds and buried class tensions come to the fore after the happy couple’s expensive wedding ring goes missing. Theatrely’s own Alan Koolik wrote that the play, “masterfully explores the fragility of human relationships and the hidden complexities that lie beneath seemingly perfect lives.”
Theatrely chatted with Baum about the inspiration behind the play, the value of live theater, and how his television experience has influenced his approach to playwriting.
What was the initial inspiration behind The Engagement Party?
The very first impetus was my interest in the nature of trust. How is it that well-intentioned people who love each other, and who have a lifetime of friendship or familial intimacy, can suddenly bankrupt their relationship in an instant? I wanted to understand how that happens, and why that happens.
So I had an idea for a play that would start almost as a comedy, transition into a mystery thriller, and then ultimately land as an emotional drama.
Did the play develop or change during its first production at Hartford Stage in 2019?
The most useful part that I can accomplish once we add the actors is figuring out how much I can cut, actually. I’m a big believer that if a moment can be accomplished in two lines instead of three, it should be two lines; and if it can be accomplished without any dialogue at all, just let the actors play it. I’ll take my grubby hands off the keyboard and let them have an acting moment, instead of forcing dialogue upon them.
Do you feel like your experience in television has influenced that more spare and economical approach?
It’s a combination, I think. First, I feel like everything is always twenty minutes too long. We all know the feeling of being engaged in a story and then slowly feeling your attention wander because there’s bloat in the text. I do believe in capturing an audience’s attention and really trying to sustain it. So I try to be as spare as possible.
Certainly writing for television and film also teaches you that economy. But I believe it’s possible to have a love of language, and really embrace language, while still being quite spare.
You mentioned that the play starts as more comedic, and then becomes a mystery, and finally lands in a more dramatic place. How did you approach tying those different genres together?
The dynamic that governs all three sections is realism. It should feel real at all times. That’s one of the wonderful achievements of Drako Tresnjak, our director. His direction makes you feel like you are actually at this party. Just like life, a night can start out in a delightful and amusing way, as this party does, and then very quickly devolve into a different tenor.
Wendie Malick is such a legend, particularly for Just Shoot Me! but also her stage work. She has a relatively small role here, in terms of number of lines, yet an integral one. What attracted Malick to the play, and has it been like working with her?
Wendie is wonderful as an actor and as a human being. She loves to sink her teeth into anything that excites her. I’m so delighted that she was game to play Gail even though, as you say, in terms of number of lines or scenes, it’s not the largest part in the play. It’s a more dramatic role for her, and really allows her to show her dramatic chops, which she has in spades.
You’ve worked extensively in television. Do you still consider playwriting your original love?
I do think of it as my first love, for sure. [chuckles] I wish we lived in a time where there were enough new plays produced on Broadway each year that one could support oneself exclusively through writing plays. But it seems that has not been the case for 50-odd years, so.
After these three years in which everyone spent a lot of time on the sofa, it feels harder than ever to motivate yourself to go to the theater. But with this play in particular, because it takes place in real time and you feel like you are actually at this party that goes off the rails, it’s incredibly different experiencing it with live actors and with a live audience.
I try to tell the LA audience – it really is worth coming out, it’s worth parking your car five levels down, and spending 30 minutes to get out afterward. I don’t proselytize for much, but I do proselytize for theater.
The Engagement Party is playing at the Geffen Playhouse until November 5. For tickets, click here.