“These chairs look terrible”, mutters Judy (House of Cards star Sakina Jaffrey), one of the six sad-eyed subjects of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, a sweetly enveloping new work about a silent wellness retreat in the deep woods, now playing at the communally-minded Ars Nova in midtown Manhattan through April 11. The inside joke in that miniscule exchange is that you, the audience, are seated in the exact same chairs described, fully cocooning its central sextet (with some accent on the “sex”), much like the cradle of nature these folks are about to experience.
Judy is in tow with lover Joan (Marcia DeBonis), and they are joined by Ned (Brad Heberlee), an unassuming, divorced man with a bad-luck streak, Alicia (Jessica Almasy), a flighty, baggage-belabored young woman fighting relationship woes, Rodney (Babak Tafti), a New Agey extrovert who has space-boundary issues–as in not knowing where they are–and the befuddled Jan (Erik Lochtefeld), a middle-aged man who keeps a picture of his young daughter in tow, and whose intentions are the least forthcoming. An unseen guru (voiced by Jojo Gonzalez) walks them through various exercises, all to be executed silently, as this core group (seemingly New Yorkers) attempts to resist the daily rigors of cell phones, critical diagnoses, and snacking over five challenging days.
Like the retreat itself, the play is nearly silent for most of its 100 minutes, which allows this well-chosen cast a variety of wordless scenarios (one of the standout scenes involves three of the campers navigating a dip in the lake, in a very droll, Chaplin-esque bit of missed opportunities). And director Rachel Chavkin, no stranger to close environs in part to her site-specific staging of 2013’s Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812–which began life at this very venue–expertly creates a near-claustrophobic kinship between the players and the audience; in most scenes, they’re literally a foot or two from you, in all their various states of being, the most revealing being one of complete undress by one its brave performers.
The ambiance of Small Mouth Sounds can’t help but invite comparison to Annie Baker’s acclaimed 2009 Obie-winner Circle Mirror Transformation, which similarly explored how similar drills both break down and lift up a varied, close-knit group, and this play doesn’t quite possess the delicate tapestry of Baker’s piece (you have to work a little harder to fill in some of the blanks here). But the playwright clearly has great affection for them and their myriad surprises, and by play’s end, so shall you. B+