This is Not Your Typical Day at the Beach
by Lauren Yarger
The windsock on the back deck might show which way the wind is blowing, literally, but for two couples spending the Fourth of July at a Fire Island beach house, there is a silent storm whipping just under the surface in Terrence McNally’s sad, funny and probing play Lips Together Teeth Apart running at the Westport Country Playhouse.
Tightly directed by Mark Lamos, the drama takes place on a terrific set designed by Andrew Jackness complete with sound and visual effects (Robert Wierzel and John Cromada, lighting and sound design) that realistically create the atmosphere of a relaxing beach house setting, but the sand castle crumples as the crashing waves prove to be a metaphor for the emotions about to explode.
Sally Truman (Maggie Lacey) has inherited the place from her brother, who died of AIDS. She isn’t sure whether she wants to keep the place or give it to her brother’s partner even if it might bring a lot of greatly needed money at sale. After all, Sally's husband, Sam (John Ellison Conlee), his sister, Chloe Haddock (Jenn Gambatese) and her husband, John (Chris Henry Coffey), aren’t exactly comfortable on the island, known as a gay retreat. In fact, no one even wants to venture into the swimming pool (also constructed on stage) for fear of catching the disease. (The play was written in 1991).
Sally isn’t sure about a bunch of other things, either, like whether she should tell Sam she is pregnant. She says it is because she doesn’t want to disappoint him after a number of miscarriages, but like everything else here, another reason seems to lurk behind her hesitation. We know this, and other things, like the fact that John and Sally had an affair, that Chloe feels invisible and that John has been diagnosed with cancer, because the characters talk directly to the audience. They don’t know how to communicate with each other or try to address any of their concerns, fears or needs. And the breakdown in communication isn’t only the result of a lack of skill --truth be told, though it rarely is, these people don’t like each other much.
McNally uses humor, great character development and the talk-to-the audience technique to paint a picture of who these people really are. In this way, he is more skilled at his art than withdrawn painter Sally, overwhelmed with trying to convey “all of that” which she sees on the landscape to her canvas. Gambatese skillfully creates a character so anxious for attention and so annoying with her non-stop chatter, constant bursts into song and use of French phrases that you wish someone would just knock her off the deck. Coffey’s John is so smoldering with frustration that you wonder if he just might do so before it’s all over. Instead Sam receives the brunt of his anger and Conlee offers a satisfying array of emotions from a man feeling inadequate and threatened on so many levels.
Lips Together Teeth Apart is many-layered and well done here, though two intermissions unnecessarily extend the run time to about two hours and 45 minutes. It runs at the Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport, through July 30. For more information or tickets, call the box office at 203-227-4177, or toll-free at 1-888-927-7529, or visit online at www.westportplayhouse.org