Lips Together, Teeth Apart

By David A. Rosenberg

Even in these dog days of summer, it’s not safe to go into the water. At least not into the onstage swimming pool that invites the four characters of Terrence McNally’s achingly sad comedy, “Lips Together, Teeth Apart.” Now receiving a lively revival at Westport Country Playhouse, the downstage pool, though impossible to see from the theater’s front rows, is a beacon of danger and refreshment.

At play’s beginning, as gorgeous Mozartian strains waft over a Fire Island beach house, characters are frozen in poses that symbolize their isolation. Hyperactive Chloe is in the kitchen; her preppy husband John is lost in the Times; dreamy Sally is doing a watercolor of the ocean; her boorish husband Sam tests the pool’s water. As the music stops, Chloe has the first line, ”Is anyone still hungry?”

As we’ll learn, everyone is hungry this Fourth of July, although for what they don’t know. Flanked by houses belonging to gays, the two determinedly heterosexual couples have their own waters tested, cracking jokes, playing charades, in the face of existential angst and the specter of death.

Sally inherited the house from her brother David, dead of AIDS, and has invited John and Chloe, her husband’s sister, for the holiday weekend. Sally must decide what to do with the place: sell it? keep it? give it to David’s black lover, Aaron?

In this character-, not plot-driven evening, McNally, as is his wont (“Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” “Master Class,” “Love, Valour, Compassion,” etc.) is most interested in dissecting the nature of love.

Chloe and John are fecund baby machines, while Sally and Sam are childless. While seeming to love their partners, we learn at the outset that John and Sally had an affair; that John has cancer; that a man has swum out too far in the ocean and could drown. Throughout, they wonder if David’s pool is infected.

Their evolving attitudes drive the action. All grow into some measure of understanding, some realization that we’re all in this together, not apart.

Of her brother David, Sally says, “I hated him being gay. And yet I loved him.” Of two men having sex in the bushes, frightened, dense Sam says, “Is that what we look like when we make love?”

If the play, written in 1991, offered only a rebuke to clueless heterosexuals, it would be hopelessly dated. Except in certain political circles far from New England, anti-gay prejudice is declasse these days. (The characters throw in digs at blacks and Jews, too, for good measure.)

But the work exists on a deeper, more metaphysical level. In an empty universe, where we zap bugs as we are in turn zapped by the unseen and the unknown, we take what comfort we can.

Although the play is definitely worth attending, the Westport production has its problems. As the annoying, ever-bustling Chloe, Jenn Gambatese over-does the role, losing the character’s vulnerability. Maggie Lacey is a brooding Sally, although she lacks the character’s more supernal qualities. Chris Henry Coffey is fine as the chilly John, while John Ellison Conlee paints a sharp portrait of a bigoted businessman.

That the actors haven’t forged into an ensemble may be more the fault of rehearsal time than direction. For Mark Lamos helms the production with his usual skill, harmonizing with fellow opera buff McNally who writes aria-like monologues and dialogue that’s akin to duets and choruses.

At evening’s end, we again hear “Soave sia il vento” (“May the wind be gentle”), the bittersweet trio from Mozart’s comic opera, “Così Fan Tutte.” Like that masterpiece, “Lips Together” yearns for the fullness of life and death that is hello and goodbye, love and betrayal, laughter and tears.

This review by Dave Rosenberg appeared in The Hour, Thursday, July 21, 2011

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