We gave it a C+
Anyone who’s ever spent the weekend with an squabbling couple in an idyllic setting—say, a beautiful beach house in the Fire Island Pines on the Fourth of July—will recognize the forced smiles, faux merriment, and shallow emotions on display in Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart. Discomfort not only clouds the faces of every character in this four-hander but also floods Peter DuBois’ sluggish revival, at Off Broadway’s Second Stage through November 23.
Chloe (Tracee Chimo) pours her nervous energy into toasting muffins and making morning Bloody Marys while her husband, John (Austin Lysy), fusses over the New York Times crossword; Sally (America Ferrera) distractedly paints landscapes and frets about a stranger who might have drowned; her husband, Chloe’s brother Sam (Michael Chernus), busies himself with duties like testing the chlorine level of the gorgeous, inviting swimming pool. Anything to avoid actually dipping a toe—or, heaven forbid, a limb!—into the pool that once belonged, along with the rest of the house, to Sally’s late brother. ”We all think it’s infected,” spits Sally. ”We all think it’s polluted. We all think we’ll get AIDS and die if we go in.” Welcome, theatergoers, to 1990.
Surprisingly, the characters’ ignorance doesn’t date McNally’s play. (We’re simply more informed today then we were when it premiered in 1991.) And consider Sam’s attitude: ”I don’t know about pools and AIDS and homosexuals…. It frightens me, all right?” Doesn’t sound very 23-years-ago, does it?
As McNally’s play bounces back and forth haphazardly between throwaway one-liners (”Jazzercise is about as profound as I want to get,” opines Chloe) and pensive, spotlight-flooded speeches—Sally reveals (only to the audience!) she’s pregnant, John admits he has cancer—the production starts to unravel. And that’s pretty much in scene 1. Ugly Betty star Ferrera, who’s not quite a stage newcomer, is, regrettably, out of her depth as the moody, preoccupied Sally; Chernus can’t crack the emotional center of McNally’s most heart-wrenching monologues. As he hits on his sister-in-law, Lysy’s John seems more smarmy than sad. Only Chimo—whose scene-stealing abilities are well documented (see: last season’s Bad Jews)—is completely comfortable in her character’s skin, let alone with all the quips and outbursts. Also: Her pantomimed ”A Bushel and a Peck”—Chloe is headlining her community theater production of Guys and Dolls—suggests she’d be a knockout Miss Adelaide somewhere down the line.
Despite Sam’s claims that ”no one wants to listen to who we really are,” we do, of course—warts, miscarriages, cancerous growths, and all. Perhaps we just caught them on a bad weekend. C+