There couldn’t be two more contrasting productions to have seen in a single week.
In Small Mouth Sounds, which transferred from Ars Nova to the Signature Center for an extended run, playwright Bess Wohl gives us a number of disparate characters who have sought out a new age retreat in a remote, wooded area, to find, or possibly to reclaim, some hidden balance. Since almost from the beginning, they are given the directive that talking is never permitted, except for certain highly specific times and places, what we divine about them has to be drawn from silent reaction, silent interaction and the few private moments of silence-violation or permitted speech. Right from the start, we know that Jan (Max Baker), nearing senior citizenry, is sad about something. We know that Ridney (Babak Tafti) is perhaps less of a stranger to mind-and-body cleansing than the others, which of course suggests that there’s another facet to that. We know that Ned (Brad Heberlee) is kind of a hapless dork, but hardly oblivious to or at peace with his dorkness. We know that Joan (Marcia DeBonis) and Judy (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) are a couple, and that Judy is possibly terminally ill. We know that Alicia (Zoë Winters) is often late, has relationship problems and likely patterns of toxic dependency. And we know that Teacher (JoJo Gonzalez), the guide and guru we experience as only a voice, has more of a real life outside the retreat than he wants us to be aware of.
Or should I say “that she wants us to know about”? Because the evening I attended, Teacher was played by standby Carmen Zilles. Gender is actually irrelevant to her function. As to the others—
—in writing this I went online for photos and discovered that in the full, original Ars Nova cast, the ones who departed before this extension were physically, ethnically, quite different. And while the rest of the roles are not gender-interchangeable, the remainder of the leeway, within the parameters of “what we know,” as described above, is rather extraordinary. And it’s further testament to the accomplishment of Small Mouth Sounds, which manages the equally extraordinary feat of both reducing human communication to its essentials, and exploding the range of emotion, depth and subtext possible when the need to break through barriers perforce becomes primal.
Rachel Chavkin has the extraordinary cast directed on a runway stage configuration, so effectively that you too feel a part of the grand experiment. This platy should have a long shelf life, just for the challenge and fascination it will hold for future companies and production-makers.
A Day by the Sea, revived by the Mint Theatre in their new home is conversely all about language, and in fact, its profligacy with words leads to a run time of nearly three hours (including two intermissions). And indeed, its modus operandi is often to show how lanuage obscures communication. Oft-described as somewhat Chekhovian, British dramatist N. C. Hunter’s 1953 play gives us—among others—the gathering of a family and ancillary personnel, replete a loyal, homely servant (Polly McKie) in love with the defeated middle-aged doctor incapable of returning her affection (Philip Goodwin), for whose family she has long worked; a crabby old uncle (George Morfogen); the woman who got away years ago (Katie Firth) from an oblivious man—
—and centrally the oblivious man himself, a career diplomat (Julian Elfer), who learns from his superior (Sean Gormley) that he’s being recalledfrom his post in France for being too meticulous for diplomacy.
A Day By the Sea is a piece that could easily falter and become dull, but it gives director Austin Pendleton the kind of actors’ scene-work at which he thrives, and with an interesting, often excellent cast (supplemented by Jill Tanner, Curzon Dobell, Kylie McVey and Athan Sporek), he manages to maintain audience concentration and engagement for the full run time handily. It’s a fine, bittersweet way to end New York’s theatrical summer.