Saturday, March 28, 2015

Small Mouth Sounds ***

After seeing Bess Wohl’s clever new play at Ars Nova, you may agree with the old adage that actions speak louder than words. Six participants in a spiritual retreat in the woods must observe silence for five days. Judy (Sakina Jaffrey) and Joan (Marcia DeBonis) are a lesbian couple going through a rough patch. The weepy Alicia (Jessica Almasy) is trying to get over a breakup. Ned (Brad Heberlee) is a hard-luck guy with a back story worthy of Job. Rodney (Babak Tafti) is a seemingly cool exhibitionist always ready for a showy yoga pose. Jan (Erik Lochtefeld) carries a framed photo of a young child with him everywhere. The unseen teacher (Jojo Gonzalez) spouts words of dubious wisdom which are practically the only ones we hear. Thanks to a uniformly strong cast, even through the silence we gain an understanding of and, in most cases, a sympathy for each person. (One character does break his silence with a well-timed monologue.) The costumes go a long way to establishing character. The cozy theater is a perfect setting for the production. It is a long, narrow shoebox all in blond woods and white panels with two rows of facing seats along the long walls and a small platform stage at one end. The panels above the seats serve as screens for projections of rain falling on leaves, sunsets and other images from nature that are reinforced by an excellent sound design. The bulk of the action takes place on the floor. Subtle lighting cues guide your attention to which of the six characters merits the most attention at any given moment. Their foibles are satirized with gentle affection. The talented director is Rachel Chavkin, who did such a fine job with “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812."  The play bears some similarities to Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation,” but I think this is the better play. NOTE: There is some male nudity which is more comic than prurient. Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission.

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