I have delayed my review of Bay Theatre’s production of this Terrence McNally play for nearly a week, for two reasons. The first is that, despite my great admiration for McNally’s work, I did not like what I saw on stage. The second is that McNally himself, along with the work’s director and actors, were going to appear post-show on October 17th. It would give me an opportunity to find out directly what the people responsible for the play had in mind.
Well, the 17th has come and gone, and I must confess that I still find this play chilly and hard to access, and the characters impossible to engage or care about. But – and I say this with less irony than you can possibly imagine – you might be a better person than I, and see in it the wisdom and joy that Bay Theatre’s large and enthusiastic crowds have apparently seen to date.
Here are the basics. David has died of an AIDS-related disease and willed his beautiful Fire Island beach house to his sister Sally (Nancy Bannon). On this weekend, she has brought her loutish husband Sam (Michael Hunter), his attention-grabbing sister Chloe (Colleen Delany) and Chloe’s insufferably arrogant husband, John (Britton Herring) to the beach house with her. The four of them are helping Sally decide what to do with it.
They are a heterosexual island in the midst of a community of gay men. Moreover, this is the dawn of the age of AIDS, where a hum of apocalyptic gaiety hangs overhead like a mist. Men dance, and men disappear, like the naked swimmer who Sally sees dive into the Ocean in the early-morning sun, never to return in this life. It recalls the plague years, when our distant ancestors would party wildly to keep out the endless no.
The four characters have secrets, which they reveal to us in freezes which commence with an unnatural sound and proceed with the lights dimmed. Bay Theatre commands these effects with great seriousness (Steven and Preston Strawn do the lights and Chris Baine is responsible for the sound design) and the device, which could be silly (even McNally pokes some gentle fun at it late in the play) is, to Bay’s credit, effective.
My brief against the characters is this: the men are bigots, gaping and gasping as they sit on the patio watching the men dance with each other in the beach house parties around them, as if they were watching exotic zoo animals. “Fruits” and “faggots”, they mutter. While Sally describes what David’s lover did to help him during the last days of his life, Sam says, “did you know [the lover] was black?” over and over again, with the same awed voice as if he was saying, “did you know he was a cannibal?”
John and Sally have had an affair, thus managing to inflict a double wound on the same family. John is insulting and cold to his wife, but she is so banal and self-involved that it is hard to feel sympathy toward her. Even Sally, who is sweeter and more thoughtful than the others, is an unimaginative woman who is periodically weak and whiny; though it is her own brother who is being insulted when the others deride gays, she will not speak up. “I’m glad I never saw my brother dance with another man,” she says, before recognizing that now she never will.
McNally writes like a literary novelist, allowing the action to flow from his strongly-written characters, rather than imposing a plot on a set of folks conjured up for the occasion. Where, as here, I find the characters disengaging, it is difficult for me to engage with the plot, and the events seem more random and less focused.
Bay Theatre has assembled a good cast but at crucial moments their authority fades, and it is hard to go where they lead us. Bannon fares best, perhaps because her character is the most complex. Delany, an actor of considerable range, almost brings her character to life but not quite; her breakdown late in the play makes her character’s shrillness understandable, but not, alas, tolerable. Herring nails John’s arrogance, but the transitions which are supposed to make John sympathetic elude him. And Propster, at times, simply seems lost.
That’s how I see it, but I am not you…or, certainly, McNally. “I love these characters,” McNally said at his October 17th post-show appearance. “Obviously, they’re flawed people, but good people have flaws.” He incorporated his own flaws into the characters, he explained, and the flaws of people of whom he thought well. But, he acknowledged, the characters and their flaws would not resonate with everyone.
And, as Director Gillian Drake points out, the characters improve incrementally during the course of the play, as people do in real life. They do not come to consciousness in a single blinding moment, like Paul of Tarsus and Ebenezer Scrooge. She is right about that: the dramatic high point – and it is beautifully written, and beautifully rendered by Bay Theatre – is when the four characters come to grips with the question of why none of them will swim in the beach house’s beautiful pool. The answer may surprise you, unless you remember that the play is set in the early eighties, ten years before it was first produced. The four straight people confront their own fear, ignorance and hatred, and come out if not well, then better, for it.
I must say that notwithstanding my rheums and complaints, Bay has done a monumental job with this production, beginning – but certainly not ending – with Ken Sheats’ magnificent set. Although the Bay stage is exceedingly small, Sheats has managed to create the exterior of an authentically weathered northern beach house, complete with outdoor shower and the beginnings of a swimming pool. Yet in the midst of all this construct, Sheats has managed to give his actors plenty of room to work, and there is not a moment of awkwardness around his complicated set. Sound designer Baine is also a master of complexity; his layered sound puts us on the Ocean shore, and at all times aids the fictive dream. While I had trouble following the actors through some of their characters’ mood changes, I had no problem understanding who they were: each actor establishes his character swiftly, and with economy. This is a long play, with plenty of talk, but Drake moves it along briskly, and gives each character something interesting to do while he or she speaks. Bay Theatre serves this text honorably and well.
This play isn’t my cup of tea, but as I’ve said before, tastes differ, and you might enjoy it a great deal. It is, after all, a Terrence McNally play.
And there’s this: one person in the October 17th audience observed that there was a play beyond the play – a play involving the gay men around the beach house, who John and Chloe and Sally and Sam see on the periphery, and who are on the periphery of their consciousness. “There is such a play,” McNally responded. “It’s called Love! Valor! Compassion!,” which he wrote shortly after Lips Together, Teeth Apart. Love! Valor! Compassion! is probably the best piece in the entire McNally canon; it might be interesting, as Paul Harvey used to say, to know the rest of the story.
Lips Together, Teeth Apart
By Terrence McNally
Directed by Gillian Drake
Produced by Bay Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART