Terrence McNally’s “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” is a study of the way bodies turn away from each other, even as their voices crash together and come to naught. I would love to go back to Oren Stevens’s ’11 deft production of the play at the Whitney Humanities Center tonight and watch it with the sound on mute. Sure, I’d be missing the wonderful clash of dialogue, but would all fall short if the four sole figures only mimed their meaning?
I don’t think so. The production’s great virtue, after all, is its devotion to the poetry of space. Take the beautiful exposed set, for example — fairly small, squat, and dangerously intimate for the two couples who ebb and flow against each other for 2 1/2 hours. There’s beautiful suggestion on this floor, something knowingly off-putting in the layout: a few chairs too many, the perfect glare of red and blue shades (patriotic yet unnatural enough) by lighting director Alexandria Lefkovitz ’09. And of course we always hear the constant din of the ocean, echoed by the frustrating jubilance of the gay beach house neighbors. The ocean and the neighbors are unseen — sound designer Patrick Dewechter ’09 allows us to hear the waves and the cries lap up against the stage, making the set that much more of an uncomfortable domestic island.
Such is the arena (part love nest, part wrestling ring) for this production’s exhilarating quartet of actors. Their dynamic is everything, but they are also inexpressibly alone. Take some time and follow only one character for 10 minutes — watch how Sam Truman (Colin Murphy ’11) glares and chafes against his brother-in-law John (Michael Knowles ’12). Watch John’s criticizing eyes — they’re less fiery than Sam’s, and yet they can’t help but coldly judge. Watch his real love Sally (Maia Collier ’11), plainly dressed, weighed down, eyes downcast. Follow, finally, Chloe Haddock (Jennifer Cohen ’09 — this production is her senior project), the bouncy, lusty wife of John. She moves the most, maybe even knows the most (“we’re all pathetic,” she sighs at the lunch table).
The story spans a day — July 4th, precisely (yes, there’s fireworks and meat and everything American) — but the characters contain a lifetime of repression and slithery secrets. It’s a social commentary, like most of McNally, but when the dust settles it’s not really about the frailty of contemporary New England’s heterosexual white couple. This production lets us know that there is something more universal in the way four bodies touch each other, if only back to back.