Sunday, 23 November 2014

Terrence McNally's LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART at Second Stage

      I have always thought that LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART was one of Terrence McNally's best plays. It's a unique combination of Chekhov and American domestic drama with some poetic touches added. The play is very definitely a product of that horrible decade when AIDS was killing so many young men. LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART in its strongest moments is a meditation on mortality. It focuses not on gay men -- they are an unseen, but heard presence surrounding the characters -- but on two straight couples sharing a house in the gayest section of Fire Island on July 4. Sally Truman, the central character, has lost her brother to AIDS. She was not able to deal with his gayness or the fact that he had a male lover who became more important to him than she was. Her brother left her this Fire Island house, which only intensifies her grief, her anger and her discomfort at his sexuality. She is sharing the house on this weekend with her husband Sam, his hyperactive sister, Chloe, and her husband John. Chloe and Sam are trying to deal gracefully with the fact that Sally and John have slept together. John has recently discovered that he has cancer of the esophagus. We watch the ways in which the fears and anger of these four people erupt. This is a Terrence McNally play, however, so there are lots of funny moments. Where a more realistic playwright would invent ways for characters to reveal their deepest thoughts to other characters, McNally believes that people, even spouses, hide their most powerful feelings. McNally's characters have soliloquies in which they tell express their fears and hostilities.  The play is very demanding of its cast. The original cast at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1990 had three of the best actors for this sort of serious comedy: Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski and Swoozie Kurtz. Anthony Heald played John, who is a kind of straight man. Unfortunately, the cast at Second Stage was not of this calibre and the play suffered as a result.
     Sally and John are the more outwardly serious characters. America Ferrara, as usual, was touching as this emotionally fragile woman who is grief stricken for her brother, guilty about her feelings about him and about cheating on her husband, and fearful of her pregnancy (she has had several miscarriages). Ferrara captured all the conflicting feelings of her character. Her explosion in the final act was totally convincing. Austin Lysy captured the eternal preppy in John and his misdirected rage, though he had some technical problems with his long soliloquies. The weak links were Michael Chernus and Tracee Chimo as Sam and his sister Chloe. Few actors are capable of the range of Nathan Lane -- capable of his ability to turn on a dime emotionally. I never felt the fear or vulnerability of Chernus's Sam. John says that he is the most emotionally exposed and vulnerable. I didn't see that at all. Where we should have seen the pain and fear under Chimo's constant talk and performing -- her need to be noticed and loved -- we just see an irritating person. Director Peter Dubois cast these people, so the buck stops there. The production was routine -- no new insights into the play, standard predictable blocking and uncertain tempo. The play deserves better than this production.
LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART. Second Stage Theatre. November 22, 2014.

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