All Things Entertaining and Cultural
And I’m not talking about the actor’s brief flirt with nudity.
As Bess Wohl’s play begins, a bearded hulk of man (Connor Barrett) plops himself in the third from house right of six chairs set up in a row. This character just stares and squirms in antsy anticipation at being the first to arrive at a class or event or both.
His lone presence makes you wonder what Wohl’s play is about.
Then Chin-Lyn makes his first rescue. He bounds in, all muscles and energy, broad but perfectly proportioned, surveys the scene, fairly ignores Barrett, and starts doing yoga exercises. His ability to bend it, twist it anyway he wants it is impressive. It’s also a funny counterpoint to Barrett’s patient glumness. Chin-Lyn gives Barrett’s character, Jan, and us something to watch, something to entertain us.
Savor that because while there will be much to watch in Wohl’s oh-so-clever, too clever piece, most of it will be self-conscious twaddle posing as a different and modern way to express communication and tell a story. Wohl uses silence, expression, and often involuntary gasps, sighs, and burps to move her play along. But it doesn’t move. It becomes a too obvious exercise in a doomed theatrical conceit. The result is pretentiousness on several levels. “Small Mouth Sounds” pretends to be a parody, but it is too heavy-handed and too quick to announce its awareness of what it’s doing to be truly parodic. It itself becomes the joke.
It pretends to communicate, and while Wohl, director Rachel Chavkin, and a game cast create a rich vocabulary of smirks, frowns, moues, smiles, yawns, pouts, amazed or ironic stares, finger flexes, and looks of pain, these often remain more admirable than moving or amusing.
One reason is because there is no story, only a framework, six characters in search of shanti attending a spiritual retreat that is the subject of the failed parody, and a parade of quick vignettes in which the cast gets to utilize its collection of expressions.
Back to pretensions. “Small Mouth Sounds” pretends to a new form of theatre, non-verbal except for the alleged parody of a spiritual retreat leader’s patter and feeble attempts by four of the six attendees to reveal who they are, but it’s only idea and experiment gone amok. Not wildly amok, or disjointed, as much as being self-congratulatingly full of itself instead of focused, interesting, or pointed.
This is not theater. It’s presentation, a nearer cousin to performance art than to drama. Worst of all, it doesn’t sustain itself. Wohl’s aim wears out its welcome as soon as you realize what she’s up to, which happen early, and that there will be cartloads more tricks than treats.
Treats do come. The cast of this dreck is terrific. They are obviously into Wohl and Chavkin’s game as much as their characters are into the spiritual mystic’s trite hoodoo about life and living it in happiness and peace. Their avidness makes you root for something to happen that might elevate “Small Mouth Sounds” into something more than a drill.
It never happens. Slight instances of amusement come along, but they are random, momentary, and fleeting. Even well-crafted expressions, mimed retorts, and recognizable motions, such as when Brad Heberlee’s Ned, committed to silence, tries six ways to Sunday to show he needs a pencil, pass without anything before or after that attaches to previous action or builds it.
Give the cast, and even Chavkin, their due, “Small Mouth Sounds” devolves into a bore. The boredom escalates to torture. I wanted to escape with as much fervor as Barrett’s character wanted the silent retreat to officially begin. Our squirms and twists of facial anguish were close to being identical. I even found myself whispering, “End. Please end.” as the 100-minute piece reached the three-quarter mark.
Regular readers know I’m not into recommending. I say what I see, take my part in the dialogue, and leave any desire to see or not to see the play to the reader. In terms of “Small Mouth Sounds,” I have to urge people to take their cultural interest elsewhere. Or wait for Philadelphia Theatre Company’s next season, which includes Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” and Jason Robert Brown’s “The Bridges of Madison County.” “Small Mouth Sounds” comprises everything I disdain about early 21st century theater. It puts ideas and concept ahead of storytelling and point. It brusquely announces or declares emotions and situations without building up to them or caring about their aftermath. It prefers shorthand over narrative or exposition. It lauds cleverness for its own sake instead of attaching it to a larger, intricate, integral whole. It pretends to profundity when it trades on the callow or shallow. It asks you buy into its difference and newness when both are cheats unworthy of the attention. Yes, there are current people to watch. Rachel Bonds can do as much in 90 minutes as the great American playwrights of the ’50s could in three acts. Locally, Douglas Williams endows plays with texture and suggests ideas that go beyond the confines of his scripts. In general, there’s not much good, or new, in the new. Hey, skip Miller, Williams, and Hellman, I’ll take William Inge over 90 percent of the new plays I see. “Small Mouth Sounds” coalesces everything I find troubling. I’m tired of new works expecting congratulation because they’re new. Let’s wait until they’re good before we heap praise on them.
Diatribe finished, there is good is Chavkin’s production. Here’s a positive note or four now that my squirming has stopped and my disdain subsided.
We begin where we began, with Edward Chin-Lyn.
Several of the performers in “Small Mouth Sounds” find ways to show you character traits in lieu of being able to speak. Attention has been given to posture, walk, care in dressing, etc. Only Chin-Lyn establishes a fully realized character. From his entrance, you know he is proud of his graceful physicality and versatility at yoga. There’s confidence is every move. Chin-Lyn’s Rodney is a poised, independent person. While Barrett’s Jan waits for something to begin, Chin-Lyn’s Rodney fills the time doing exercises it turns out are in keeping with some of the Asian philosophy the retreat lecturer will spout.
Throughout Chavkin’s production, you’re sure of who Rodney is and of what he’s capable. You know he is into all the guru is saying. When the leader asks a rhetorical question, and Rodney nods yes, Chin-Lyn is both comically and pathetically crestfallen when the leader continues with, “Of course, the answer is no.” Everyone is good at the non-verbal, but only Chin-Lyn takes it to the point where Rodney registers as a total being.
Of course, this being 2018, Wohl can’t resist having Rodney take possible sexual advantage of a woman attending the retreat. Interesting that the coitus seems right and mutual when it happens — It’s actually a legitimately light and leavening moment, — but is regarded as fashionably foul later in the play. You know because of the woman’s subsequent reactions to Rodney.
In a twist that earns a big kudo, Wohl, amid six characters sworn to silence for the duration of the retreat, keeps the lecturer off-stage, so you hear him without seeing him.
Orville Mendoza is wonderful as the Tibetan guru who will make exceptions in discipline and decorum for himself he won’t make for the retreaters.
The spiritualist’s lecture is where the parody comes in. Wohl is hit and miss, mostly miss, in providing the leader with cliched platitudes, toothworn images of beauty and inner peace, and too-often-heard cant about letting all go and finding the simple essence that will lead to happiness. The speeches given Mendoza are good, but they are laid on with a trowel, give in to cliché of cliché, and sometimes, and this is the worst crime, play as if Wohl believes what her preacher is spouting. You want to go along with the joke, but too often have to question whether Wohl is still joking.
Any passage that includes dialogue in “Small Mouth Sounds” is muddy. You sense Wohl fishing for words, as her characters sometimes do, instead of having something real or poignant to convey.
That said, Brad Heberlee does a brilliant job as the first of the retreaters to tell his personal story. Heberlee masterfully makes Ned’s unfinished sentences, incomplete thoughts, and ideas he can’t quite articulate into an aria that might not entertain but exemplifies the actor’s craft and adds to your awe of it. Heberlee’s Ned, a lumpish character who would like to be as cool as Rodney or as together as women played by Cherene Snow and Socorro Santiago, takes fresh form. He becomes likeable and understandable in a way non-verbal communication can’t transmit.
Of course, that’s Wohl’s point, that Ned has to speak to be comprehended. My point is the speech is mediocre, but the delivery is aces. Heberlee suddenly became the most effective actor on Chavkin’s stage. You really don’t want to know much more about Ned, but you know you’ll be happy to see Brad Heberlee on any cast list.
Cherene Snow, certainly looking different from her excellent turn in PTC’s “Having Our Say” last year, also gets to show her mettle, first when she reads something a sleeping friend has written about her and, second, when she tells her personal tale, another the non-verbal would not be able to handle.
General praise also to Santiago, Brenna Palughi, and Barrett, the last of whom has a great moment at the end of “Small Mouth Sounds.”
That moment is funny and inspired. Occasional, sequences or individual moues within Wohl’s play. Not enough through. The terrible “T’s” — twaddle and torture — unfortunately rule the day.
“Small Mouth Sounds,” presented by Philadelphia Theatre Company, runs through Sunday, April 1, at the Suzanne Robert Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 1 p.m. Wednesday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $69 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 215-985-0420 or by visiting https://myptc.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org/single/psDetail.aspx?psn=50681
Grade: For Production, B+, For Play, D