Samuel Baum is best known as the creator of television thriller Lie to Me about a leading deception expert who uses facial expressions and body language to untangle webs of lies. Then Baum wrote The Wizard of Lies for HBO. Now, in his debut play The Engagement Party, Baum chooses a different perspective to continue to examine questions of human morality. The production began January 10 at Hartford Stage in Connecticut and continues through February 3. Directed by artistic director Darko Tresjnak, the cast is led by Zach Appelman, Richard Bekins, Mia Dillon and Beth Riesgraf, and also includes Teddy Bergman (Peter and the Starcatcher), Brian Lee Huynh (War Horse), Brian Patrick Murphy, and Anne Troup.
Here Baum talks with Hartford Stage’ assistant dramaturg Yan Chen about what drives his work, collaborating with Tresjnak and more.
What was the first impetus for you to write The Engagement Party?
Samuel Baum: I was thinking about how in relationships it takes years to build trust but only seconds to destroy it. I wanted to understand how and why trust gets broken. Ultimately, the play is an exploration of secrets and lies.
You created the television series Lie to Me and co-wrote the HBO film The Wizard of Lies. When did you become interested in the theme of lying and deception?
SB: Well first, as a small child—to get out of trouble. But professionally speaking, I was doing research for this play, reading up on psychological studies about lying, and I came across the work of Dr. Paul Ekman. He’s a brilliant behavioral psychologist and the world’s foremost expert on deception. His body of work sparked the idea for Lie to Me—to tell a mystery where each week a behavioral psychologist has to untangle a web of lies. I’m particularly interested in moral choices where there’s a cost not only to lying but also to telling the truth.
How did you and director Darko Tresnjak become collaborators on The Engagement Party?
SB: We first met at the Williamstown Theatre Festival 20 years ago. I was there as an actor (though I was also finishing writing my first play) and Darko was directing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. We then reconnected many years later at a reading of the very first draft of The Engagement Party at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. I kept working on it through many drafts over the years, and I feel so fortunate that Darko has chosen to direct it in his final season here.
What has it been like to work together with Darko?
SB: He’s really the ideal collaborator for this play. The production requires a great deal of directorial precision because the plot is quite intricate. Darko is meticulous and precise. I think all of his wonderful work in musicals makes him attuned to the emotional rhythms of the play.
The play is set in 2007. How do you feel that it speaks to that time and to us now, in 2019?
SB: I’m not generally a big Kierkegaard quoter, but I agree with him that the tragedy of life is we live it moving forwards, but we can only understand it looking backwards. I think it’s helpful to take stock of how we got here. And while the play is specific to the lives of the characters in 2007, the themes and revelations are all too topical.