Lips Together, Teeth Apart
BY ROSALIND FRIEDMAN
A play or musical can live in the moment or take you back in time to another place in history. Looking and listening to Terrence McNally’s complex Lips Together, Teeth Apart tells us what and how some of us were thinking and feeling in 1991. That’s when this play takes place. The where? At a beach house on a Fourth of July weekend on Fire Island. Parts of this beach island located off the south shore of Long Island, NY, became and still are a refuge for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender communities.
Here, in the WCP production directed very well by Mark Lamos, we meet two straight, 40-something couples: The Haddocks (Did McNally choose this name as a fish joke?) and the Trumans. Jenn Gambatese brings unfettered, edgy, over-the-top energy to the role of Chloe Haddock, a hyperactive overachiever, who adores Broadway musicals, which she performs with an amateur theater company; it takes someone with special talent to do this part; this actress won the CT Critics Best award for her lead role in Goodspeed’s Annie Get Your Gun.
Chloe’s husband, Chris Henry Coffee’s John, is an uptight sarcastic, successful prep school administrator, who is more interested in completing the NY Times Crossword Puzzle with pen than conversing with his wife or in-laws. It is only when we and they learn that he is suffering from incurable cancer that we can feel any sympathy for him. Chloe’s brother is Sam Truman; John Ellison Conlee, a large guy, presents this conflicted man as someone with a big heart, struggling to make a living in construction and to hold on to his wife, Sally, whom he loves very much. Maggie Lacey sensitively portrays Sally, an aspiring artist, who can’t hold her pregnancies; she is the balance wheel here.
From four separate monologues, we learn that Sally’s brother, David, has died of AIDS and has left the beach house to Sally; the house is surrounded by male homosexuals who scare the four of them; they are even frightened to go into the pool on the property for fear of becoming ill; they all question being Gay. Sally and her brother-in-law John have had a one-night fling; their spouses know about it and are cruelly hurt by it. The playwright, while exposing these four characters’ flaws, also shows them compassion. Sally has witnessed a young man swimming out too far in the ocean, is deeply concerned for his safety, and experiences depression when he drowns. Sam feels lost: “Nobody knows who we really are,” he says. John apologizes to the group, and Chloe, while singing, spouting French, and cooking and serving meals, is the most generous of spirit toward her family and the neighbors.
Andrew Jackness’ Set lit by Robert Wierzel, John Gromada’s exceptional Sound and Music, Candice Donnelly’s Costumes and Fight Director Mark Silence enhance the production. Lips Together, Teeth Apart makes us aware of just how far we have come in the past 20 years. At the Westport Country Playhouse through July 30.
This review originally aired on WMNR Fine Arts Radio.