In Samuel Baum’s “The Engagement Party,” a festive occasion morphs into an obsessive mystery when the bride-to-be’s expensive engagement ring goes missing. The ensuing whodunit reveals more about the family and friends at the party than they’d like to admit—including a deep secret at the heart of the happy couple’s relationship. Continuing at the Geffen Playhouse through Nov. 5, compelling acting on a beautifully designed set make “The Engagement Party” must-see theatre.
The soaring set (designed by Alexander Dodge, with lighting by Matthew Richards)—featuring a cozy living room, dining room and upstairs bedroom with glass balcony and windows, with a gleaming white kitchen on the flip side of the rotating stage—is almost like another character in this production. Actors move through the rooms as if through paintings, each space enveloping them in shiny opulence as the story unfolds.
Costumes (by Joshua Pearson) are similarly rich. The play opens on Manhattan couple Josh (Jonah Platt), wearing sharp slacks and blue shirt, and Kath (Bella Heathcote) in a long, sleeveless black dress that hangs on her waifish frame (though it may also restrict her movement somewhat, especially with Louboutin-like pumps), as they prepare a dinner party to announce their engagement.
Parents Gail (Wendie Malick) and Conrad (Richard Bekins) soon arrive in Chanel- and Brooks Brothers-inspired attire, similarly suggesting comfortable wealth. Old college friends Kai (Brian Lee Huynh)—who works under Josh as a stockbroker—his wife Hayley (Lauren Worsham), and left-leaning academic Alan (Mark Jacobson), soon follow.
Though there is some initial back-and-forth between "communist" Alan (engagement gift: Oxfam donation) and capitalist Conrad (gift from Tiffany), things start getting personal—Alan harbors a secret crush on Kath and Kai wants a secret favor from Josh on behalf of Hayley, who herself may have secret problems.
Seemingly the only one without a secret is the final member of the party to arrive, Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), Josh’s childhood friend from his pre-wealthy days, who rushes in like a breath of fresh air in Hawaiian shirt, work-boots and charming Italian-American accent.
Director Darko Tresnjak, who had directed the world-premiere production of this play at the Hartford Stage in 2019, keeps an even pace (though perhaps too even) as characters mingle and, crucially, Kath’s $300,000 engagement ring gets lost in the commotion of a wine spill.
The ensuing search for the ring grows increasingly desperate as suspicions are cast widely and no one is allowed to leave the house, like in an Agatha Christie mystery. While Johnny takes apart three radiators searching for it, the others confer secretly in different configurations, slowly revealing all the things they didn’t want said—and then some.
As suspense builds, eliciting audience gasps more than once, a climactic reveal threatens to undo everything of a family and Josh and Kath in particular, its truth unraveling like fated yarn.
All the actors sustain the story’s tensions masterfully. Malick (a warm Southern breeze) and Bekins inhabit their parental roles in especially nuanced ways amid painful revelations. A scene where they subtly exit the home is poignantly crafted.
Platt similarly embodies Josh with fluid believability, as does Huynh as Josh’s increasingly disgruntled friend Kai, while Murphy threatens to steal the heart of the show as salt-of-the-earth Johnny.
The east-coast, blue-blood sensibility of the play may make it seem somewhat distant here in LA, but its story of buried secrets and pain is universally human and, importantly, not gender dependent. Had the ring not been lost, fundamental truths may never have emerged, making “The Engagement Party” a captivating story worthy of the Geffen’s excellent production.
“The Engagement Party” continues at the Geffen Playhouse’s Gil Cates Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles, through Nov. 5, with shows Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets range from $39 to $129 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (310) 208-2028 or visiting GeffenPlayhouse.org. Run time is 80 minutes without intermission.