Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Lips Together, Teeth Apart"

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entire contents copyright 1997 by Larry Stark

"Lips Together, Teeth Apart"

Written by Terrence McNally
Directed by Nancy Curran Willis

Set Design by Ruth Neeman
Costume Design by Eileen Bouvier
Lighting Design by D. Schweppe
Produced by Michael Hirsh
Stage Manager John Murtagh

Sam Truman.............Doug Sanders
Sally Truman..........Shelley Brown
John Haddock...........Brad Walters
Chloe Haddock...........Shana Dirik

Theater is made out of people. Good theater is made by people who have talent, dedication, and experience. The Vokes Players production of Terrence McNally's "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" is a textbook example. These are the kind of people who think of cutting their day-jobs to four days a week in order to starve for their art. And they work at that art. The program biographies of eight people list 81 shows they've worked on, and actors can list seven and eight shows they've done with the Vokes Players alone. But despite their talents, their documented experience, their obvious dedication, they and the twenty-eight other people who made the show together are referred to as "amateurs".

The amateur actors repeatedly get the opportunity to slip on characters that other people have worn and, with the help of a director, to make them anew. In this case the characters are two straight couples spending Fourth of July on the deck of a beachfront house on Fire Island. Two of them are brother and sister; the other two have had an extramarital affair; they have been close friends for years.

Terrence McNally presents three levels of reality here. There is real-time banter and confrontation, arguments and reconcilliations and sudden flares of temper and resentment that long-married friends engage in. But there are also stop-motion instants in which the thoughts of one character after another get stated, briefly or at length, often center-stage, that none of the other three can overhear. And eventually, some of those secret thoughts --- the important ones --- leak out into admissions and confessions that people discover they can deal with together.

The third level is subliminal, hinted but rarely stated. The people on neighboring decks on both sides, though never seen, are not straight, but gay. The house onstage was willed to his sister by her misunderstood gay brother, who died of AIDS. She has conceived and lost several babies, and worries that if she gave birth the child might grow up gay. Her husband is afraid any child he might have might not love him, but he's determined to love their child, straight or gay, in any case.

Under expert direction by Nancy Curran Willis [who lists 12 of her many credits], every one of these levels gets expressed on Beatrice Herford's intimate Vokes Theatre stage.

Bubbling, babbling Chloe Haddock, mother of three and pushy cook with a passion for amateur musicals, is flamboyantly alive in Shana Dirak [who lists 11 roles in her bio]. She is thick-skinned, easy to wound, quick to forgive, doggedly determined to cope, and reliant on inexhaustible love for her husband and her friends. Dirak's energetic non-stop prattle, flawless timing, and lightning shifts into naked honesty would steal the show were she not always aware of the people she works with.

Chloe's brother Sam Truman is an overworked New Jersey contractor insecure about his manhood, suspicious of others' image of him, ineptly protective of his sister and his wife. Doug Sanders [11 productions, 7 with Vokes] brings a vulnerable spontaneity to his jokes, his temper-flares and moral posturings, and his dependence on wife and friends.

John Haddock's detached intellectuality and bland self-confidence mask his secret awareness of esophagal cancer and his own irritating personality. Brad Walters [13 productions, 8 at Vokes] brings to the role a compassionate dignity that underscores his need love he feels he does not deserve and that blossoms into a kind of quiet heroism.

Sally Truman's frayed insecurities and cluttered artistic incoherence serve as a key to that third level of truth. She is the only one who notices a lone swimmer drowning himself on the horizon, and relates their indifference to her own failure to help or even understand her dead brother. Shelley Brown [12 productions, 3 with Vokes] uses a trembling prickliness as the surface clue for inner turmoil, which seems always on her mind. Hers are the most complicated problems to be articulated, and she is the last to come at last to hopeful, realistic resolution.

Ruth Neeman [6 productions] put a comfortable set on the tiny Vokes stage that felt real and included a pool (as well as Bob Peters' onstage working shower), two bedrooms and a kitchen upstage, and even a bank of sand and dune-grass all of which said Fire Island summer, as did Eileen Bouvier's costumes [7 productions] while the lights of D. Schweppe [9 productions, 5 at Vokes] mirored three different times of day and a fireworks display.

Director Nancy Willis was new to the Vokes stage, but actors don't gravitate to meaningful positions spontaneously; neither do they take or relinquish the center of attention, or shade their performances toward a common goal without that external eye. Every time I applaud a show thinking I have been peeking through an invisible wall watching people make it up as they went along, I know those talented, dedicated, experienced people had an excellent director helping them do it.

Theater, as I said, is made out of people.

( a k a larry stark)

"Lips Together, Teeth Apart" (till 2 August)
Beatrice Herford's VOKES THEATRE
Route 20, WAYLAND
1(508) 358-4034
Check their website

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