“Lips Together, Teeth Apart”--Westport Country Playhouse, July 12--30

--Irene Backalenick

It is to the credit of our times that “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” now playing at the Westport Country Playhouse, is outdated. Most people (at least, I believe, in our tri-State area) no longer fear that AIDS will destroy them by sticking their heads in a swimming pool, and they no longer view the gay community as an incomprehensible—and perhaps threatening--group of “others.”

Terrence McNally’s play unrolls in the early ‘80s, when both the gay movement and the scourge of AIDS were getting underway. (The Playhouse program, unfortunately, never indicates this time frame, which would have been helpful to the audience.)

Two middle-aged straight couples are, presumably, enjoying an idyllic week-end at Fire Island. It is indeed an oceanfront paradise—EXCEPT that it is located in the heart of the gay community, with the house hemmed in by neighbors. The home has been left to Sally by her brother, a homosexual who has died of AIDS. Sally and her redneck husband Sam are conflicted. Should they keep the home, given its location? Should they sell a property estimated to be worth $800,000? Should they, in good conscience, give the home to the brother’s lover, who nursed him to the end?

Sally and Sam ponder these questions while also struggling with their troubled marriage. Added to the cast of characters are their equally troubled week-end guests—Sam’s sister Chloe and her husband John. Other difficulties abound. Sally is depressed, can’t have children, is devastated by an offshore drowning. John is dying of cancer. Sally and John have had an affair, which their spouses suspect. The surface joviality is rocked by emotions--a profusion of frustrations, raw nerves, and sudden rages.

How well does all this work on the Playhouse stage? For starters, Mark Lamos, with his unique vision, has staged the piece brilliantly, with strong, effective staging, played out on Andrew Jackness’s dazzling - but highly workable = stage set.

So much for direction and design. But it is there that the show falters. Granted that McNally is a thoughtful playwright who manages to combine the individual with the universal. Frightened little men and women play out their particular dramas on the great cosmic stage. But there is so much going on in “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” that the play jumps all over the place.The play offers nuggets of insights, which bob to the surface, but one searches hopelessly for its central theme. And, incidentally, what’s the title all about?

Secondly, the cast falls short of McNally’s challenge. (One does well to put aside memories of the New York production, with Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski, and Swoozie Kurtz.) Here, the two female actors disappoint—Jenn Gambatese carries her Chloe over the top, and Maggie Lacey, as Sally, disappears into the woodwork. Though Chloe is meant to be manic, and Sally depressive, both interpretations lack subtlety. The men fare somewhat better: John Ellison Conlee is a vulnerable Sam, somewhat likeable despite his bigotry. And Chris Henry Coffey creates a believable John who coolly distances himself from the others.

In all, “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” gets a mixed review--direction and design are admirable, play and performances disappointing.

This review also appears in nytheaterscene.com

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