Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Lips Together, Teeth Apart **

I wish I had been able to keep thoughts of the original production of Terrence McNally’s 1991 play out of my head while I watched this revival, now in previews at Second Stage. However, the memory of Christine Baranski, Swoosie Kurtz, Nathan Lane and Anthony Heald performing parts that (with the exception of Kurtz) were written for them was too strong to suppress. Their superb performances went a long way to minimize the play’s faults. Furthermore, at a time when AIDS was front and center in the nation’s consciousness, the play had a much greater resonance than it has today. It is not so much an AIDS play as a play about how straight people related to gays, at least in 1991. In a time of Ebola panic and gay marriage, its concerns seem almost quaint now. Sally and Sam Truman (America Ferrera and Michael Chernus) have invited Sam’s sister Chloe (Tracee Chimo) and her husband John (Austin Lysy) to join them for 4th of July weekend at the Fire Island Pines home that Sally has just inherited from her brother, recently deceased from AIDS. Although Sally loved her brother, she could not really deal with his homosexuality. The two couples are perfectly happy to enjoy the fruits of his labors as long as they stay out of the pool, which they fear might give them AIDS, and don’t get too friendly with the gay neighbors. At some point in the play each character addresses the audience to reveal his or her personal demons, including serious illness, low self-image, guilt over adultery, fear of miscarriage and fear of parenthood. The personalities of the two couples are so mismatched that it is difficult to imagine why they married. The play marks time for much of the first two acts, wasting moments on lame running jokes such as Sally’s inability to remember movie titles correctly and Chloe’s changing clothes constantly. At the end of the second intermission, there were more than a few empty seats in the theater. McNally finally raises the stakes in the final act, but then allows the tension to dissipate once more. Since “Bad Jews,” Chimo has become the go-to actress to play overbearing. Chernus lends a lot of humanity to his character and Lysy hits the right notes in a difficult role. Surprisingly, it is Ferrera, whom I have much admired in the past, who is the weak link here. Alexander Dodge’s set and Esosa’s costumes are attractive. Peter DuBois’s direction seemed a bit unfocused. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, including two intermissions.

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