Lips Together, Teeth Apart
Also see Fred's review of A Doll's House
On Fire Island, Sally Truman (Maggie Lacey) inherits the swanky beach house her late brother David left her. He died of AIDS. A visual artist, Sally is, for much of the time, contemplative. She is fearful that, once again, she might lose a pregnancy. She is also somewhat wary, then clearly worried that an ocean swimmer she sees is in severe trouble. Her husband, Sam (John Ellison Conlee) is a husky New Jersey-based contractor. Sam is not especially comfortable with the gay community (much of Fire Island's populace). He is basic but he is not without affection for those close to him. For example, he is desperate to keep his wife and hold onto his marriage.
Sam's sister Chloe (Jenn Gambatese) babbles to the point of distraction. She is rather blunt about her sexual needs, her community theater presence as a musical performer, and foodwhich she prepares much of the time. Every so often, she attempts French phrases, even as she might burst forth from the kitchen area at the back of the stage. Insecure, Chloe probably feels inferior to just about everyone. Her husband John (Chris Henry Coffey) is an admissions man at a prep school. He also has cancer. John and Sally slept together fairly recently.
McNally's plays include Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, Love! Valour! Compassion!, Master Class, and the book for the musical Ragtime. Lips Together begins, after one listens to the swoosh of ocean waves prior to curtain, with an operatic aria. The four actors barely move on stage at the very beginning. Theatergoers listen and await. Later on during the performance, opera returns. At one time, a Beach Boys tune emanates from one of the presumably gay neighbors' homes.
This is a play about two troubled heterosexual couples, and each person is granted, by the playwright, moments to figure it all out. McNally allows for private, pensive reflections as individuals find opportunity to speak innermost thoughts and feelings to the audience. Rather than asides, the isolated sequences prove their worth as essential dramatic devices which fuel the complexity of the piece.
Mark Lamos, who has long wished to direct Lips Together, does so by opening up the script and providing it room to breathe within the construct of McNally's tension. Andrew Jackness' lovely, realistic set includes a swimming pool. The Westport stage, however, is high. Those sitting in the front of the orchestra have a bit of trouble appreciating the full depth and dimension of Jackness' contributions.
The pool, though, is pivotal. While this play features straight couples, the script probes beneath their surface exteriors. No one really wants to swim in the pool. Gay men have been in the water and the frightful notion is that one might actually "catch" AIDS.
What about the title? Evidently, if one repeats the phrase, a mantra, before falling asleep, the likelihood of teeth grinding is less likely.
Lips Together, Teeth Apart is contemporary and pertinent. People's biases continue and Americans are still either inheriting or purchasing summer cottages. The WCP production boasts an ensemble wherein everyone is talented. No one dominates although one wishes that Chloe could shut up for just one minute. (Of course, McNally intentionally writes in her incessant chatter). Some of the dialogue is hilarious but, in terms of percentages, much more is anxiety producing and/or emotional.
Lips Together, Teeth Apart is presented at Westport Country Playhouse through July 30th. For ticket information, visit www.WestportPlayhouse.org or call (203) 227-4177.
- Fred Sokol