Susan Granger’s review of LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART (Westport Country Playhouse)
As the play begins, a wind sock blows in the breeze atop Fire Island beach house and there’s the sound of the ocean. Four people are on-stage, motionless. Sally (Maggie Lacey) stands pensively in front of an easel. Her husband Sam (John Ellison Conlee) is checking chemicals in the lap pool. His sister Chloe (Jean Gambatese) is in the kitchen. Chloe’s husband John (Chris Henry Coffey) is reading a newspaper.
Scenic designer Andrew Jackson’s stunning wooden deck set sprawls across the stage like an Architectural Digest layout, and Chloe exclaims, “This is paradise…it’s heaven!”
They’re celebrating the Fourth of July weekend together, yet each is quite alone, suffering individual isolation. After several miscarriages, Sally has just discovered she’s pregnant again. She inherited this beach house from her brother David, who recently died of AIDS, and she’s unsure whether to keep it or sell it, since it’s in the middle of a gay enclave. Sam’s supportive but saddled with his own pervasive prejudices and psychological uncertainties. Chloe’s manic hyperactivity and Frenchified chatter covers her insecurity and vulnerability, while John is secretive about being treated for esophageal cancer.
Playwright Terrence McNally cleverly captures the universality of our contemporary fear of intimacy and inability to communicate because, while the affluent couples seem to talk incessantly, they rarely listen to each other because” it’s too painful to think about what’s really going on.” Spotlighted soliloquies reveal their inner thoughts, as the tension builds subtly, amid chatter from the unseen gay neighbors partying in the houses on either side of them. And a man may be drowning in the distance.
Staging this intricate, four-person ensemble piece - with its tonal changes and melancholy transitions - is a major theatrical challenge which perceptive Artistic Director Mark Lamos meets brilliantly. Each actor resonates in his or her own way, defining the precarious balance of the four deeply flawed, yet diverse personalities. Maggie Lacey exudes quiet desperation. John Ellison Conlee is sadly self-doubting. Exuding unrelenting energy and comic ditziness, Jean Gambates is obnoxiously domestic as the wannabe performer who sings show tunes at inappropriate times, while Chris Henry Coffee is acerbic and angry, oozing preppy elitism.
Revealing compassionate insights into marriage, family, loss and love, “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” is at the Westport Country Playhouse through July 30th.