Lost in Love

By Geary Danihy

The Westport Country Playhouse continues its consideration of couples in various states of crisis, consternation or confusion with Terrence McNally’s “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” a Chekhovian study of two straight couples desperately attempting to celebrate the Fourth of July on Fire Island in a bequeathed beach house bookended by the abodes of gay couples. As directed by the Playhouse’s artistic director Mark Lamos, this elegant, subtle, multi-layered production is a serio-comic study of the ills, both physical and psychological, that haunt a society bedeviled by disconnection.

Most of the action takes place on the deck of the beach house, which is dominated by a pool that may, so the couples believe, be tainted with AIDS. Before the curtain, the sound of waves ebbing and flowing fill the theater, establishing the movement of the play, a classic rising and falling of emotions and revelations, a movement from mundane and quotidian concerns to essential and eternal conundrums. As the lights come up, the two couples are frozen, as if they are etherized specimens pegged to boards; slowly, to operatic strains, they begin to move - it is as if we, the audience, are activating them.

Chloe (Jenn Gambatese), in the kitchen, comes to life first, followed by her husband, John (Chris Henry Coffey), who is reading the New York Times, her brother, Sam (John Ellison Conlee), who is testing the pool’s water, and his wife, Sally (Maggie Lacey), working on a seascape. As they begin to move and talk the audience starts to learn who these people are by what they do and say, but this is all surface, for soon each character begins to divulge hidden fears in brief soliloquies that reveal underlying tensions and personal devils.

AIDS and cancer, as well as sexual insecurity and betrayal, become invisible characters that shadow the physical actors, but there is a disease (read dis-ease) more subtle yet equally deadly that haunts the stage – call it existential angst, if you will, but it is as old as Job’s desperate query in the face of inexplicable strife – Why? Why am I here? Why do I exist? Why have these ills befallen me?

This all sounds very heavy, but McNally’s skill and Lamos’s directorial talent allow the questions to be posed through laughter rather than despair, for while heavy issues underlie the production, there is a great deal of surface hilarity in the form of witty repartee and quirky characterizations, chief among them Gambatese’s hyperkinetic Chloe, a woman who simply can’t shut up, believes body language must always be written in upper-case letters, and who sprinkles her non-stop babbling with French 101 phrases and lyrics from musicals she has acted in. Once the audience understands “who” she is, the laughter is abundant, but this is a trap subtly set by McNally, for the Chloe we initially see and judge is not the Chloe we are left with at the end of the play. The same is true for Conlee’s Sam, an apparent homophobe, and, to a lesser extent, the characters created by Coffey and Lacey, for as the evening progresses what we think we know and the judgments we initially make about all of them must be revised.

The curse of AIDS is, to a certain extent, a curse of love, and although the two couples on stage are straight, they too must battle the curse of love in whatever form it manifests. On this holiday weekend they are surrounded by those who are “different,” but the difference becomes a mere matter of inclination, for love is, in the end, not easily defined, understood or maintained…and it always involves more than a pinch of pain.

“Lips Together, Teeth Apart” runs through Saturday, July 30. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org

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