Samuel Baum has made the art of lies his specialty, at least in the creative sense.
The writer has immersed himself in the depths of deception throughout his career, creating the hit TV series “Lie to Me” and recently putting his executive producer stamp on the new NBC show “The Irrational.” Already a successful year for Baum, he now has his sights on the stage instead of the screen, running his play “The Engagement Party” at the Geffen Playhouse through November 5.
With the Geffen shows acting as the west coast premiere for “The Engagement Party,” audiences will be once again pulled into Baum’s web of lies, as the play continually devolves into compelling depravity. The show follows a couple, Josh and Katherine, who welcome guests at their engagement party before a mystery breaks out, sending the seemingly loving group into a circle of spite and mistrust.
Baum’s intent with the story was his ever-evolving interest in the “nature of trust” and wanting to understand “how is it that lifelong friendships and family relationships that are so full of love and trust suddenly become bankrupt in an instant.” He wanted to create a story that was a mystery in three phases: closed-door, narrative and psychological.
“I think as a playwright, lies and secrets are the lifeblood of drama,” Baum said. “Any time someone has a secret and is willing to tell a lie, there’s something there that they’re too afraid to openly talk about … that’s immediately compelling for drama.”
The unfolding of the characters in “The Engagement Party” is paralleled by the slow unraveling of the genres within the play. The opening conversations mirror a lively chat amongst comrades, transitioning into an emotional mystery with each line of dialogue. Baum crafted realistic story beats and dialogue to match the comedic start and the thrilling climax, relying on his past writing experiences to induce “economy” in his characters’ words and actions.
“I’m a big believer in plays that have a story, that are not merely a thematic inquiry, but actually spin a yarn,” the playwright said. “And so that was one of my goals with this. I also like to laugh, and I believe that an audience deserves a good time, especially if you’re going to challenge them later.”
The Geffen showings of the play are years in the making for Baum along with his cast and crew, including Tony Award-winning director Darko Tresnjak. After a sold-out world premiere run at the Hartford Stage in Connecticut, the Geffen came calling in 2019, but Baum had to pass on the window due to stage design modifications that couldn’t be completed in time. That window became more drawn out due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as the team had to sit on the sidelines until this year. With the stage modifications made to the lavish design, the “Party” is ready to leave Los Angeles audiences stunned, adding to the area’s rich live theater scene.
Even though “The Irrational” premiered to nearly 4 million viewers, a success of a fall television season starved for content, Baum still holds theater projects in high regard because of the relationship between cast and audience. Calling his play “truly a different show each time,” the reactions of those sitting in the Playhouse seats creates a “palpable effect” that raises the show’s quality.
“We’re all so comfortable sitting on our sofas watching streaming (post-COVID), myself included, that the hurdle to get over to go out and see something live has gotten larger,” Baum said. “But I’m so struck by watching this play live with live actors … and seeing an audience laugh and gasp. It truly is an experience that you cannot get (at) home.”
Tickets for “The Engagement Party” can be purchased on the Geffen Playhouse website, geffenplayhouse.org.