The silence in “Small Mouth Sounds” is deafening. Bess Wohl’s metaphorical, quite funny play, an off-Broadway success, is at Long Wharf Theater in a co-production with commercial presenters. It deals with six urbanites who’ve taken a vow of not speaking while attending a week-long country retreat. Although an overlong sit (one-and-a-quarter hours with no intermission) and has too many endings, it’s a work that gets under the skin.
The retreat’s participants all have personal problems: illness, loss, rejection. Coming from various backgrounds, they’re thrown together seemingly willy-nilly. Yet there’s a pattern here as they obey the godlike, unseen guru and his capricious instructions. Where to share a bedroom, how to express their “intentions,” how to avoid wild animals, what and when to eat – all are programmed, all are eventually ignored. The promised result of their stay is, “After this, you don’t ever have to go back to who you were.
The setting is an unadorned platform with six chairs, against a background of narrow windows from which we see nature both storming and calm. On a forestage, tatami mats serve as beds for a lesbian couple; a man with a myriad of emotional and physical afflictions; a young, teary woman trying to get over a lover’s rejection; a reticent man with a sad secret; and a gym rat with no inhibitions.
Conveying distress largely through facial expressions and gestures, snorts and cries, the sextet is, at first, puzzled and resentful, despite presumably knowing in advance what to expect. As their stay progresses, they make connections, become freer, believe the guru’s shallow platitudes like “It is impossible to avoid pain” and “You are not alone.”
One of the play’s assets is making the guru as humanly flawed as the guests. He has a cold, his father has died, he’s interrupted by his cell phone.
Although dialogue is scant – the longest is that aria of afflictions — the lack of speech forces the audience to pay close attention and fill in blanks. As directed by Rachel Chavki, repeating her off-Broadway stint, the characters’ vexations are unpacked like essential belongings. The polished ensemble cast — Connor Barrett, Ben Beckley, Edward Chin-Lyn, Orville Mendoza, Brenna Palughi, Socorro Santiago and Cherene Snow – meets the challenge of creating apprehensive characters mainly through attitude.
Even technical aspects have to “speak” without words: Laura Jellinek’s bare set, Tilly Grimes’ casual costumes, Mike Inwood’s pinpoint lighting, Andrew Schneider’s significant video design, Stowe Nelson’s substantial sound design.
The conclusions of “Small Mouth Sounds” may seem simplistic, yet they’re as serious as they are bubble-headed. Words fail as we shout into the void, expecting an answer but receiving none.