Monday, March 23, 2015

178 (2014-2015): Review of SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS (March 19, 2015)


From left: Jessica Almasy, Erik Lochtefeld, Sakina Jaffrey, Babak Tafti, Brad Heberlee, Marcia Debonis. Photo: Ben Arons. 
Beginning with a remarkably realistic sound effect that makes you feel like you’re sitting under a tin roof during a powerful storm, there are a lot of sounds—big and small—in Bess Wohl’s diverting, but slight, new play at the always innovative Ars Nova. Some are the kind hinted at by the title, but surprisingly few are in the form of words. Ms. Wohl, you see, has set herself the challenging task of creating a situation in which six people attend a weeklong retreat at a rural location where, as they seek enlightenment, the cardinal rule is silence.  

Among the few characters whose names are actually mentioned is Ned (Brad Heberlee), a slender, 30ish guy who never takes off his knit cap, for reasons he eventually needs words to explain. The others are Alicia (Jessica Almasy), a blowsy young blonde who seems at sixes and sevens about everything, and struggles to maintain text contact with a boyfriend; Jan (Erik Lochtefeld), a bearded, middle-aged man on whom the insects like to feed and whose backstory has something to do with a young boy whose picture he places near his pillow; Rodney (Babak Tafti), a toned, exotic-looking young man given to practicing various yogic exercises in his skivvies with calm expertise; Joan (Marcia Debonis), an overweight, middle-aged woman; and Judy (Sakina Jaffrey), her slender, dark-haired lover, who finds it hard to take the retreat's rules seriously. The only other character, who remains hidden until the curtain calls, is Teacher (Jojo Gonzalez), the guru whose gently accented, soft-voiced instructions, admonitions, and advice are delivered over a loudspeaker, much as if he were the Wizard of Oz.
Marcia Debonis, Sakina Jaffrey. Photo: Ben Arons.
To house the retreat, Laura Jellinek has converted Ars Nova’s oblong black box into the semblance of a hall with a minimalist aesthetic: off-white walls; strips of molding (as in a traditional Japanese home); a coffered ceiling; and, topping the walls, window-like panels on which video and still images of the world outside are projected. The audience sits on cushioned folding chairs in two rows on each of the intimate room’s two longer sides; at one end is a raised stage with a row of seats on which the guests assemble to hear Teacher’s lectures, and at the other is a curtained passageway for entrances and exits. The long, narrow floor space between the spectators becomes the guests’ sleeping area or the outdoors, as needed
Foreground: Marcia Debonis, Sakina Jaffrey; rear: Jessica Almasy, Erik Lochtefeld. Photo: Ben Arons.
Stowe Nelson’s brilliant sound design makes a major contribution to the atmosphere, as do Mike Inwood’s versatile lighting and Andrew Schneider’s multiple projections. Tilly Grimes’s inconsistent costumes, however, make it difficult to determine what the weather’s like or what season it is. Costumes range from a fur-hooded winter jacket to short pants; complete nudity also plays a role in one of the funnier scenes.
Erik Lochtefeld, Sakina Jaffrey. Photo: Ben Arons.
As the play progresses we’re forced to watch closely to pick up clues as to who these people are and what they’re seeking at this retreat. By the end of the play’s 100 minutes, we’ve been amused by some of their idiosyncrasies, have sensed some of their frustrations, and have observed how they relate to others, but the lack of dialogue has given us only the sparsest of clues as to who they really are and what—apart from Ned, perhaps—enlightenment means to them. When the retreat ends and they slowly begin speaking again, we learn a few things that may come as a bit of a surprise. But—apart from a few desperate moments, especially when Ned delivers a full-out monologue about a laundry list of personal catastrophes and worries about the earth’s future—we must depend on characters interacting through improvised sign language. 
Relief comes periodically when Teacher’s voice is heard. Gradually, we learn he’s as clueless as the others. He complains about his sinus problems, is forced to accept cellphone calls in the middle of his lectures despite his own rules, and in other ways subverts whatever banalities these people have come to imbibe. A sample: “I have no plan. You are the teacher. I am the student.” Or his mantra that, no matter what you’re going through, “You are not alone!” The play thus satirizes the difficulties of communication while parodying the ideas and commercialism of New Age retreats. It garners a few laughs along the way, especially in that nude scene (full frontal male, for those who are interested). 

What saves the enterprise from sinking in its innate whimsicality is Rachel Chavkin’s (NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812) expert direction and the way the ensemble’s mimic skills meet the play’s demands as the actors wordlessly express a range of feelings and ideas. Each character is given a sharp outline, but the playwright is too constrained by her concept to give her people much depth, so outlines are all we get. It’s fun, though, to see the misunderstandings silence can create—as when someone tries to pass a packet of tissues to someone else as those in between misinterpret the transaction. The irony, in fact, is that (apart from Ned) the character we learn most about, even if indirectly, is Teacher, seemingly wise and all-knowing, but as troubled and unenlightened as any of his students. Thus, even though we don’t see him, Mr. Gonzalez, who delivers his lines with wonderfully subtle irony, should be as well remembered as his pantomimic counterparts. 

Ars Nova
511W. 54th Street, NYC
Through April 11