“Lips Together - Teeth Apart”
By Tom Nissley
It’s a bit of a shock to be drawn back more than twenty years and asked to remember the terror of the AIDS crisis as it made its initial impact on our whole society. Questions about how a gay man who had never mentioned to his family that he was gay, but now had to tell them he was dying of the dread disease, flickered around us, and unless we knew someone and dove into the intimate details with love and concern, most of the time we went about our lives as if the crisis did not belong to us. Terrence McNally’s play, “Lips Together – Teeth Apart,” cut through the sloth of that approach by taking two “straight” couples, related because two of them were siblings, to a weekend on Fire Island, a great gay hangout, where one couple had inherited a (fabulous) beach house from the wife’s brother, who had recently died of AIDS. The play was first produced in New York when fear of AIDS and of people with AIDS was rampant.
Sam (John Ellison Conlee) and Sally (Maggie Lacey) are the new owners of the house which belonged to David, Sally’s deceased brother. John (Chris Henry Coffee) and Chloe (Jenn Gambatese) have children at home in New Jersey, but are glad to be here for an ‘adult weekend.’ Quite adult, in some ways. Chloe raves about their sex last night, while John focuses his whole distracted self on sister-in-law Sally, with whom he has had a previous intimate sojourn, and who he wants to tell about his serious diagnosis of esophageal cancer. Sam is easy to get to talk invective against the gays, how they dress, how they dance, and how his kids would not be gay – if they had any, which they don’t, because Sally has lost several mid-term, and is pregnant again. Chloe, a constant chatter-box, is full of her own clichés - she’d love to swim in the beach-front pool, but is “allergic to chlorine” - no one feels safe swimming in water that has been swum in by David and his lover. Etc.
If this sounds awful, well, in one sense it is. On the other hand, the production is perfectly acted and directed (Mark Lamos), on a really beautiful set (Andrew Jackness). The harsh reality is played out so well that it’s easy to be drawn back to those fearsome days, and hard to see whether we’ve made the progress we might want with the subject. Do I recommend it? Yes. It’s pretty likely to irritate you, but entertain, as well, and make you think. The title comes from a doctor’s suggestion to Sam to keep his jaw open at night so that he won’t grind his teeth, and how to do that is to go to sleep repeating a mantra – lips together, teeth apart. The prescription at least recognizes the extent of our nervousness about our complicated lives.
Tickets and information at www.westportplayhouse.org
Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre