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Theater review: ‘The Engagement Party’ shines with a dazzling script, multifaceted drama

The cast of “The Engagement Party” is pictured on stage. The contemporary drama play will run in the Geffen Playhouse’s Gil Cates Theater through Nov. 5. (Courtesy of Jeff Lorch)

“The Engagement Party”

Oct. 4 - Nov. 5

Gil Cates Theater

$39 - $129

By Victoria Munck

Oct. 14, 2023 7:21 p.m.

This post was updated Oct. 15 at 7:51 p.m.

“The Engagement Party” is well worth putting a ring on.

Directed by Tony Award winner Darko Tresnjak, the contemporary drama unveils the strife that shakes the table of the wealthy young couple Josh (Jonah Platt) and Katherine’s (Bella Heathcote) intimate engagement party. The celebration, which first launched on Connecticut’s Hartford Stage in 2019, will run at the Geffen Playhouse’s Gil Cates Theater through Nov. 5. With complex characters, a clever set design and an engrossing, surprise-filled script, “The Engagement Party” shines as bright as its foregrounded jewel.

As soon as the cool lights rise on stage, audiences are welcomed into Josh and Katherine’s luxurious Park Avenue apartment, and the sophisticated tone is complemented by a smooth jazz soundtrack. The breathtaking set’s interior design alludes to the characters’ affluence with a tall spiral staircase and upscale furniture. When the duo enters, preparing for their party in stunning attire, their romantic chemistry is quickly notable, even when making light jokes over household chores.

[Related: Q&A: Tarell Alvin McCraney discusses his new position at the Geffen Playhouse]

As the guests file in, the production’s lively ensemble solidifies the occasion’s fun-loving dynamic. From Katherine’s even classier parents, Conrad (Richard Bekins) and Gail (Wendie Malick), to the couple’s close friend group of fellow Harvard graduates, each character brings a distinguished backstory and sense of humor to the scene. While the delivery of their collective banter initially feels forced, the actors quickly slip into a natural rapport that immerses viewers in their witty, convivial celebration of love.

Nonetheless, it is not long before the first cracks in the glass are revealed. When Josh and Katherine’s friend Alan (Mark Jacobson) is pushed to explain his opposition toward accumulating wealth, there is a clear tension between him and the millionaire attendees. The performers effectively allow the awkwardness to travel through the theater before attempting to displace it with a laugh, perfectly setting up audiences for the complete descent into chaos that is to come.

When Josh’s friend and employee Kai (Brian Lee Huynh) pulls him aside for a private talk, the play’s masterful set design delivers the first of several surprises, rotating entirely to reveal a pristine, high-ceiling kitchen. Impressive details in the sound design allow the dining room’s chatter to occasionally waft through the door, maintaining a realistic party environment. When Josh turns down Kai’s request to help his struggling wife secure a job, it becomes further evident that the joyous night will be taking on a new direction.

Back at the dinner table, the group enjoys a final moment of festivity, passing around Katherine’s glorious $300,000 engagement ring. However, when Kai accidentally spills a glass of wine and the ring disappears shortly after, the celebration is hastily replaced with havoc as they begin the search for the jewel – which is then revealed to be uninsured. Innovative prop work and stage direction convey complete commotion as each guest upturns furniture and scours the apartment in pursuit of the small ring with a lofty value.

As hours pass without success, the troubling circumstances push each character to heightened degrees of anxiety and anger, leading to irrevocable confrontations. Platt most notably gives a captivating performance as Josh’s distress escalates, instilling slight fear in both the audience and the characters around him as he begins to accuse his loved ones of stealing the missing ring. Huynh presents a similar, chilling display of rage and articulates Kai’s frustration with Josh, which is preceded by years of resentment.

The story’s compelling spiral is attributed primarily to Samuel Baum’s ingenious script. With a concise 80-minute runtime, the play captures an evening of countless twists at an excellent pace, never feeling rushed despite being immensely eventful. As characters continue to uncover secrets beyond any viewer’s expectations, puzzle pieces are rearranged to keep audiences wholly engaged with each shocking gem of dialogue. Additionally, every conversation – even those primarily for comedic value – seems vital to the production, a rarity in modern theater. With such an action-packed and moving narrative, the drama could adapt exceptionally to film.

[Related: Theater review: ‘The Ants’ is a ‘biting, timely thrill’ exploring artificial intelligence]

The only flaw in Baum’s script is a failure to thoroughly flesh out the play’s female characters. Despite Heathcote’s tasteful performance, Katherine’s personality often feels muted in comparison to Josh’s forwardness and full backstory. Though perhaps intentional, the stage show seems to prioritize the men’s drama, even though each woman holds stakes in their affairs. Nonetheless, every character remains a joy to watch on stage and maintains value even when less prominent.

“The Engagement Party” is a dazzling drama that masterfully grips modern audiences with hard-hitting humor and bold bombshells. With a stellar script and glorious set, the play highlights the magic of contemporary storytelling and the efficacy of live theater.

When presented with a chance to catch this enthralling production, viewers shouldn’t wait to say, “I do.”

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Victoria Munck | Theater | film | television editor
Munck is the 2024-2025 Arts editor. She was previously an assistant Arts editor on the theater | film | television beat. Munck is a rising third-year communication student from Granada Hills, California.
Munck is the 2024-2025 Arts editor. She was previously an assistant Arts editor on the theater | film | television beat. Munck is a rising third-year communication student from Granada Hills, California.
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