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Secrets, Lies & Misperceptions

An interview with The Engagement Party playwright Samuel Baum

Interview by Amy Levinson, Associate Artistic Director

Amy Levinson: I’d love to talk a little bit about how you came to writing.

Samuel Baum: Ultimately, I think it goes back to childhood. When you’re a kid, growing up is a little like walking into a movie an hour late. You’re just trying to figure out what the hell is going on—in your own family and out in the world. You’re trying to understand the behavior and relationships around you. And it’s mystifying because you’ve missed so much, so much has happened before you were even born. For me, that’s why I write—to try to make sense of the world around me.

AL: So did you get into writing when you were in college? And did you start with plays? Screenplays?

SB: I started with plays. In college, I was really fortunate to study with the playwright Adrienne Kennedy. She was incredibly inspiring and really taught us to go for it, as she does in her own work. I was also a theater actor, which is how I first met Darko Tresnjak at the Williamstown Theatre Festival almost twenty years ago. I think it’s very helpful for a playwright to have acted before. It helps you understand that no matter how much you may focus on theme or social commentary, at the end of the day, it’s about writing great scenes for actors, and giving them something to sink their teeth into.

AL: In your estimation, what do you feel has changed since you wrote the play, and do you feel like the play meets the audience in a different way based on those changes?

SB: Well, the initial impetus for the play was my interest in the nature of trust. There’s that old saying, that trust takes a lifetime to build, but it can be destroyed in an instant. I wanted to understand how that happens, why that happens. Since the time I wrote the play, sadly the erosion of trust has only become more salient.

“There’s that old saying, that trust takes a lifetime to build, but it can be destroyed in an instant.
I wanted to understand how that happens, why that happens... Sadly the erosion of trust has only become more salient.” –Playwright Samuel Baum

AL: Can you speak a bit about the collaboration with Darko and what it looks like when the two of you build a new play together?

SB: Darko is the ideal director for this play, in part because it takes place in a single evening, almost in real time—so pacing and rhythm are incredibly important. Darko’s stellar work in musical theater gives him a flawless sense of timing. Not to mention the gorgeous productions he creates alongside the amazing design team of Alexander Dodge, Joshua Pearson, Matthew Richards, and Jane Shaw. It’s just an extraordinary group of artists.

AL: Are there subjects or ideas that you feel you return to in your work?

SB: Absolutely. Issues of class, status and privilege. And from a story perspective—secrets, lies, and misperceptions. The tragic and comic ways we misjudge other people all the time.

AL: The Engagement Party is populated with complicated characters. And I heard Darko say at one point that you succeed in refraining from villainizing anyone. I’m wondering, how do you achieve writing people with whom you are ethically, morally or politically diametrically opposed without commenting on their points of view?

SB: I focus on what my characters want. Because we’re all pursuing something, and rarely are we judging ourselves for that pursuit. So, if I focus on the character’s objective, it usually keeps my mind from wandering to a critical place. And I think that we’re all just overgrown children running around trying to seem a little better or a little more than we really are. Just terribly afraid that if anyone discovered how limited or flawed we are, we wouldn’t be loved. And that applies to people who have perhaps made some morally ambiguous choices. It helps me refrain from judging them.

AL: From whom or what do you draw inspiration?

SB: For me, the greatest luminary is Arthur Miller. When I look at a play like All My Sons, I’m in awe of the rigor of construction, the moral clarity, the insight into human nature. It’s astounding. There’s a reason his plays are timeless. He shows us who we really are, you know? And when you’re able to hold up the mirror like that—that never goes out of fashion.

The Engagement Party

OCT 4 – NOV 5, 2023
Written by Samuel Baum
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
Featuring Richard Bekins, Bella Heathcote, Brian Lee Huynh, Mark Jacobson, Wendie Malick, Brian Patrick Murphy, Jonah Platt & Lauren Worsham

The champagne is on ice, the hors d'oeuvres are perfectly arranged, and the table is exquisitely set. At a swank Park Avenue apartment, a young couple is celebrating their engagement with an intimate gathering of family and friends. When a glass of wine is spilled, the night takes an unexpected turn, unleashing a spiraling sequence of events and revelations that will irrevocably change their lives.

Directed by Tony Award winner Darko Tresnjak, The Engagement Party’s original production at Hartford Stage in 2019 was heralded as a "masterful piece of playwriting” and a “theatrical experience worth its 85 minutes in gold.”


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