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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Don't Miss This Brilliant
4th of July on Fire Island

Terrence McNally's successful 1991 comedy Lips Together, Teeth Apart is currently receiving a first class production at New Brunswick's George Street Playhouse.

It is the 4th of July at an upscale beach house on Fire Island. Sally has inherited the house from her gay brother David who recently succumbed to AIDS. Sally and her ineffectual husband Sam have invited Sam's sister Chloe and her domineering, snobbish husband John to spend the weekend with them.

All four carry variously stereotypic and/or jaundiced views of the buff gay men who are occupying the surrounding houses. They also fear that contact with the water in the beach house pool will expose them to the AIDS virus which killed David. However, they have to deal with more serious issues of their own. With each totally wrapped up in his or her own problems, none can relate to or provide comfort to any of the others.

From time to time, each character voices his inner thoughts and feelings (insecurities) directly to the audience. In these monologues, author Terrence McNally provides searing, illuminating insights into their bruised psyches.

Deirdre Madigan, Kevin Carolan, Alison Fraser and John Bolger

The showiest role is that of Chloe, and Alison Fraser gets every bit of show out of it. High strung, pretentious and, at the same time, down to earth, her seemingly empty-headed suburban wife and mother, whose avocation is appearing in community theatre musicals, struts about the stage hilariously simulating off-kilter bits and pieces from such musical roles as Adelaide and Mama Rose. Her coup de theatre occurs when she pierces our hearts during a revealing monologue. We are both startled and deeply moved when confronted with the knowledge that she clearly and painfully understands how silly a creature she is and needs to be. Excellent work.

John Bolger's domineering, smugly superior John hits all the right notes. He is fully believable in his self-contempt. As he faces the grim reality of his inoperable cancer, he realizes his need for the wife whom he so terribly mistreats.

Deirdre Madigan's Sally is quietly effective and moving. She beautifully conveys the neediness which has led the artistically inclined, sensitive and loving Sally into a liaison with John. Although we believe Sally when she says that she loves her husband Sam because he does not seek to control her, Madigan makes us privy to the subtext which tells us that she needs more strength and maturity from him.

Kevin Carolan captures much of the humor and humanity in McNally's portrait of an ordinary Joe, hard-working small businessman who is as much in fear of losing his wife as he is of having children (he is afraid of what they will think of him). Although Sam is the most homophobic of the four, McNally and Carolan humanely make it clear that his feelings are a result of insecurity and ignorance, and not viciousness.

In fact, the entire play with its depiction of two fish out of water heterosexual couples can be seen as a tolerant, sympathetic, and bemused homosexual view of the foibles of straight people.

R. Michael Miller's set is complex and quite beautiful. The wooden deck and beach house are in matching bleached wood, and they capture the upscale look which the script requires. We are able to clearly observe the activity in the two bedrooms and the kitchen, each of which is very well realized. There is also an impressive (partial) swimming pool downstage.

Christopher J. Bailey's excellent lighting design does well by the poetic effects when required. David Murin's costumes complete the visual design flawlessly.

High praise is due director Michael Morris. This three act, nearly three hour play never feels rushed or overlong, and the performances bring out a great deal of subtext and character complexity.

(Author Terrence McNally was in attendance on Opening Night. It is exciting to contemplate the idea of a continuing relationship between McNally and George Street. Artistic Director David Saint has an excellent track record or maintaining such relationships. At the least, it would be wonderful if George Street would produce Love! Valour! Compassion!, which is a companion play to Lips Together ...)

Combining sheer talent and dogged perseverance, Terrence McNally has quietly emerged over the last few decades as the best active playwright in the American theatre. The fact that his is not a household name sadly illustrates the diminished importance of the theatre in our culture. However, rest assured that McNally's oeuvre places him in the first rank of American playwrights alongside of Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

A delightful distinction that separates McNally from his illustrious peers is that his specialty is comedy. His comedic plays cover a wide stylistic range from all-out, uproarious farce to the insightful humor deriving from character and the human condition.

Lips Together, Teeth Apart finds McNally writing at the top of his form in the latter style. He examines the tragedy that permeates everyday life. There is nothing "light" in the material. However, albeit sometimes through tears, McNally enables us to experience laugh-out-loud pleasure while contemplating the tragic human condition. Thus, this magnificent play activates the mechanism which allows us to find pleasure in being alive.

Lips Together, Teeth Apart continues through March 7 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Box Office: (732) 246-7717/ online

Lips Together, Teeth Apart by Terrence McNally; directed by Michael Morris. Cast (in alphabetical order) : John Bolger (John Haddock); Kevin Carolan (Sam Truman); Alison Fraser (Chloe Haddock); Deirdre Madigan (Sally Truman).

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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Bob Rendell

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