Small Mouth Sounds
Bess Wohl's comedy about a spiritual retreat returns for the summer.
Six lost souls sit on folding chairs and listen attentively to a disembodied voice in Bess Wohl's very funny and touching Small Mouth Sounds, which is now playing a summertime engagement at the Pershing Square Signature Center's Linney Theatre following a 2015 run at Ars Nova. They are not listening to the voice of God, but a self-help guru who accents his opaque bits of wisdom with dramatic pauses: "When you see the ocean…you may not be able to return...to the well." Everyone in this play is dissatisfied, but will the price of admission to this retreat buy them peace of mind?
It seems doubtful for the tightly wound Ned (Brad Heberlee, more skittish than a stray cat). He is ironically made to share a bunk with the retreat's most aggressively Zen camper, yoga enthusiast Rodney (Babak Tafti, simultaneously beautiful and obnoxious). Both men are attracted to messy hot girl Alicia (the unexpectedly charming Zoë Winters), who bunks with the kind-hearted but mysterious Jan (a delightfully befuddled Max Baker). Lesbians Judy (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, drier than a good martini) and Joan (Marcia DeBonis, a deluge of feelings) occupy the third bunk. While Joan seems on the verge of tears from every vaguely profound thing the sinus-congested teacher (the appropriately affected Jojo Gonzales) says, Judy barely suppresses her laughter at the silliness of it all.
Luckily, we don't have to suppress our laughter, not that we would be able to do so anyway. Wohl's play is hilarious, made even more so by top-notch physical performances from the cast. The retreat is a silent one, so most of the story is told outside of the dialogue. Thanks to carefully considered and ultra-clear staging by director Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812), we observe characters fight, bond, and fall in love without ever uttering a word. The lack of speech also removes the impulse toward confessional monologues that this play about a group of unhappy strangers might encourage, helping to preserve a sense of mystery until the very end.
The major exception comes from Ned, who uses the opportunity of a question to the teacher to describe a protracted series of misfortunes, morosely hopping over the line between comedy and tragedy: His house burned down shortly before he discovered his wife sleeping with his brother. On top of that, he's worried about an environment that seems to be rapidly deteriorating: "To be at peace in a world that's at war just seems wrong," he observes, calling into question the entire premise of this artificial retreat away from the world.
Set designer Laura Jellinek creates a perfectly harmonious and soothing environment for this spiritual hideaway: blond oak laminate floors and Japanese-inspired walls onto which video designer Andrew Schneider projects raindrops on foliage. The sound of a torrential downpour on the roof coupled with the teacher's soft voice is enough to set off anyone's ASMR (atmospheric sound design by Stowe Nelson). As it was in Ars Nova, the show is staged in traverse (with the audience on either side of the action). The larger Linney Theatre offers the performers more room to spread out (Mike Inwood's lighting makes the cabin spaces quite distinct) without sacrificing any of the intimacy of the original production. While the actors remain mostly silent, Tilly Grimes' costumes speak for their characters, with Rodney's loose sheer tank top saying, "Clothes? If I must…"
Small Mouth Sounds is an excellent, perhaps even enlightening, evening of theater. Wohl is not satisfied to merely present a satire of spiritual capitalism: All of her characters are real and their problems are genuine. The different ways they cope with those problems also feels authentic: At one point DeBonis screeches in frustration at her cold-as-ice partner. Tafti howls with animalistic rage once he sheds his ultra-chill façade. Wohl is kind enough to offer some solace to all of her damaged characters, but it doesn't necessarily come with the package they paid for.