Lips Together, Teeth Apart
New Phoenix Theatre
by Anthony Chase
Continuing the theme of excellent acting in great American plays in the seasons opening productions, New Phoenix Theatre is giving a handsome and satisfying (if unconventional) outing to Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart, directed by Greg Natale.
I am tempted to call this the regional premiere of the play, as a previous production at another theater so bowdlerized the script as to leave it unrecognizable in places.
This is the full play with a skilled ensemble. Candice Kogut and Eric Michael Rawski play Sally and Sam Truman, a couple who have inherited a Fire Island beach house from Sally’s brother, who has died of complications from AIDS. They have invited Sam’s sister and her husband, Chloe and John Haddock, played by Kelli Bocock-Natale and Richard Lambert to spend the July 4th weekend with them.
The casting is unconventional and creates an unscripted wrinkle in the fact that John and Sally have had a sexual dalliance, and John wants to continue the relationship with his sister-in-law. Usually, the two women are cast with actresses who are contemporaries. To cast a middle-aged character actress in one role, and a youthful leading lady in the other, alters the equation, making John’s motivation to have the affair seem rather shallower than it might otherwise.
In this play, McNally again employs the device of monologues spoken to the audience, as he also does in Master Class, Love! Valour! Compassion!, and other plays, exposing his characters inner thoughts and sense of self, and imbuing the proceedings with philosophical heft.
Whereas the original production, which debuted in the early ‘90s at the height of the AIDS crisis, starring Christine Baranski as Chloe, Anthony Heald as John, Swoosie Kurtz as Sally, and Nathan Lane as Sam, seemed to suggest that the heterosexual world had an ethical responsibility to reach out to the gay world at a moment of crisis, this production seems much more firmly anchored in the self-absorption of these people and their isolation from the world at large.
In addition, Natale has guided the company away from the great humor that usually characterizes the play. The effect is a more somber and contemplative evening, but one that is still engaging and pleasing.
Paul Bostaph has provided an excellent realistic set. Chris Cavanagh’s light and sound are superior. Costumes by Ms. Bocock-Natale are also very good.