Karen Allen and Kevin Andersonin Speaking in Tongues(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Karen Allen and Kevin Anderson
in Speaking in Tongues
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
As Andrew Bovell's remarkable Speaking in Tongues begins, two couples on opposite sides of an impressionistic set are discussing whether or not to pursue extra-marital affairs. While they natter on about this, Bovell indulges in a slyly cynical conceit: The actors speak in unison. The playwright is implying that these sorts of surreptitious exchanges are utterly predictable; aside from the occasional word or phrase, dallying lovers everywhere use the exact same rationalizing language.

Bovell suggests that the characters' protestations of anxiety and uncertainty, of respect and love for their absent spouses have been uttered, are being uttered, and will continue to be uttered by errant partners everywhere. On this point, he won't likely get much disagreement from audiences. (The one I was in laughed heartily at these in-tandem speeches with what could only be taken as slightly nervous recognition.) As the agitated quartet of Jane (Karen Allen), Leon (Kevin Anderson), Sonja (Margaret Colin), and Pete (Michel R. Gill) worry through their inclinations, one of the pairs decides not to give in to impulse; the other forges ahead. Only at the beginning of the next scene, when all four have returned home, does the audience understand what has just happened: unintentional wife-swapping. Leon, who philandered, is married to Sonja, who didn't. And Pete, who resisted temptation, is married to Jane, who succumbed. Though the neat coupling of betrayals strains credulity, it is acceptable for the sake of dramatic argument. And as Bovell further develops his look at modern marriage and its discontents, this initial coincidence proves to be only the first in a series.

There are two ways to look at Bovell's contrivances. The easiest response is to dismiss his scenario as pat, call his anxious drama too clever by half and, therefore, unconvincing. But the other attitude, which I recommend, is to regard Bovell as ingenious and to see that the accumulating overlaps of the play serve a larger purpose: The author wants to examine the frequent connections and disconnections between and among people. Speaking in Tongues might best be described as a devilishly enjoyable cross between Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde and John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, with bits of Patrick Marber's Closer sprinkled in.

After Bovell brings his marrieds face to face and each of the faithful partners confesses a near lapse, the playwright tests audience gullibility further: He sends the two men to a bar and the two women to a different bar, or perhaps the same bar on a different night. Of course, they get to talking about marriages and confess to the flaws in their own. It may be indicative of the differences between men and women, as Bovell sees them, that Leon and Peter never realize that Leon has been with Jane, whereas Jane and Sonja do realize who they are to each other.

Michel R. Gill in Speaking in Tongues(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Michel R. Gill in Speaking in Tongues
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
What happens next is that Jane and Pete tell cryptic stories full of new names. Jane, it seems, has recently seen their next door neighbor, Nick, getting out of his car spotted with blood and tossing a woman's shoe into an empty lot. Pete reports literally bumping into a man who was running down the street, a man who told him about the disappearance of a woman to whom he'd once been engaged. The man, Pete says, was wearing brogues (i.e., a certain type of heavy shoe). Pete then tells Jane that, a few days later, he was down by the water and saw the same brogues sitting there empty.

That's just about it for the first two couples. In the second act, the adventurous and creative Bovell leaves them to their unresolved situations and introduces a set of new characters. It's part of the enormous enjoyment and challenge of Speaking in Tongues that these figures cross paths with each other and with Leon, Jane, Pete, and Sonja in ways that only become clear moments before the play concludes. Indeed, a complete summary of who's who and what's what here might sound like its own version of speaking in tongues.

Perhaps only a brief summary of the new, second act characters is necessary. They're Valerie (Allen), a psychotherapist whose car has broken down on a back road; John (Gill), Valerie's brusque but guilt-ridden husband; Sarah (Colin), Valerie's patient, who has a habit of dumping men; Neil (Gill again), the dumped man with the brogues; and Nick (Anderson), the shoe-tossing neighbor who is seen explaining at some length that the woman he rescued on a back road jumped out of his car and ran away from him, leaving her shoe behind. By the time these disparate figures have had their say, they've each fit into Bovell's interlocking circle of wounded loyalty, careless infidelity, suicidal desperation, and possible murder.

If one of Bovell's points is that the world is small, he puts it across--but he also lands the notion that small isn't simple. Each scene, each line of Speaking in Tongues seems to be part of a brain teaser. Having his own good time, the author gives his audience an equally good time even as he pulls the rug out from underneath our complacency. What he doesn't supply are easy answers. Is Nick telling the truth about Valerie's disappearance, or has he deliberately or inadvertently murdered her? Does Sarah know that the man with whom she's having her current fling is Valerie's husband? Is John correct when he insists that Valerie has troubled relationships with men because she was abused by her father? Do any of these rocky liaisons survive? Do any of the marriages?

Margaret Colin in Speaking in Tongues(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Margaret Colin in Speaking in Tongues
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Nothing about Speaking in Tongues is simple, including Richard Hoover's set design. To sketch in the various locales, Hoover utilizes a few chairs and a carousel full of Elaine J. McCarthy's projections. Those projections are beamed onto mirrors--the very mirrors that, before the play begins and during intermission, reflect the couples in the audience. (Get it? This play is about all of us.) Other striking images include larger-than-life shots of brogues and tied-up letters that underline some of the evocative plot details.

While the look of the production is black-and-white, it isn't cut-and-dried. Those photographs are fragmented in keeping with Bovell's presentation of myriad facts that don't add up. Brian MacDevitt's lighting design keeps things dark and shadowy. Costume designer Jess Goldstein does a good job of dressing the actors so that each looks sufficiently different in his or her multiple roles. With footwear so prominent in the script, Goldstein pays special attention to it: The ladies wear great shoes, and Pete's rich-brown brogues are enviable as well.

Speaking in Tongues challenges its audiences and also puts director Mark Clements and his actors to the test. Clement brings out the undercurrent of sexuality and menace in Bovell's text, and Allen, Anderson, Colin, and Gill are with him every high-heeled and brogued step of the way. Colin is willowy and insinuating as both Sonja and Sarah, but she makes Sonja vulnerable while Sarah is brittle and careless. Allen's Jane is timid and hurt; her Valerie, stern in suit and pulled back hair, is a thorough professional until undone on that back road. Anderson's Leon is solid and stolid, while his Nick is a mass of fears. Gill can't quite disguise his dark good looks despite what he does to his black hair, but he is able to show Pete as unsure of himself, Neil as deeply wounded by failed love, and John as a cool man who thaws at the thought of his wife dying alone. Together, the four actors are a sleek ensemble, and Speaking in Tongues is an engaging babble.