By Bill Marx
Despite its promising premise, Bess Wohl’s script is yet another exercise in genial domestic comedy.
Small Mouth Sounds by Bess Wohl. Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara. Staged by SpeakEasy Stage Company in the Roberts Studio Theatre in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA, through February 2.
Even Higher Enlightenment is cut down to size in contemporary American theater. Bess Wohl’s play Small Mouth Sounds revolves around six characters who are paying to give each other the silent treatment. They are at a retreat in which they are commanded to look deeply into themselves, to find inner peace by sensing the infinite. Everyday distractions have been removed — cell phones, television, newspapers, trivial conversation — in an effort to help them confront the limits of the ego, to deal with their inner pain and insecurities, to ask the big questions. The expectation is that hours of wordless contemplation will inspire illumination and, maybe, meaningful change — though the risk is great. Perhaps an attendee or two will be engulfed by the expansive waters of the unfathomable and skitter off into despair or even worse. “Humankind,” wrote T.S. Eliot, “cannot bear very much reality.” Unfortunately, there is no chance reality will intrude in Wohl’s genial script, which forsakes its promising premise and settles for being yet another exercise in wan domestic comedy.
Spirituality doesn’t show up either, though the setup invites the possibility. There is not much dialogue in this one hour and forty minute (with no intermission) production, aside from the instructions of “The Teacher,” whom we hear via an oversensitive sound system. As voiced by Marianna Bassham, the retreat’s leader proffers a cartoonish German accent worthy of Dr. Strangelove and communicates via a feckless irrelevance that suggests the daffy effusions of an inept scam artist. With a guiding spirit this satiric, nothing in Small Mouth Sounds goes beyond the prosaically amusing: frustrated characters break the rules (smoking pot, using cell phones), awkwardly try to communicate without words, and develop crushes and friendships amid the inevitable misunderstandings. Moments of emotional distress pop up — affecting revelations of loss and illness — but they are buried in the throttling air of mild comedy. Because there is so little talk, we are called on to figure out the problems bedeviling each character; Wohl makes most of these trials and tribulations clear enough, but with the angst spread among six figures (and a generally upbeat wrap-up) nothing takes on much dramatic potency.
The SpeakEasy Stage Company production serves up the lightness of the script’s faux-“heaviness” with infectious care. The performers are skilled and have plenty of fun with the interludes of silent comedy. Amid all the telegraphing there is some nice detail work, particularly the hangdog distress of Nael Nacer’s Ned and the desperate neediness of Celeste Oliva’s Judy, but all of the cast members (Barlow Adamson, Sam Simahk, Kerry A. Dowling, and Gigi Watson) are fine. Director M. Bevin O’Gara works with — rather than against — Wohl’s spirit of anemic farce. Given the script’s theatrical exploration of wordlessness, the rhythm of the staging could easily have been erratic, weird, even downright experimental (overlong soundless interludes, multiple actions happening at the same time, strange conjunctions of one-liners and trauma). But the evening is content to move along from one bit of business to the next with the depressing regularity of the setup and release of a TV sitcom.
The proceedings are pleasant enough, though I got angry at one moment. Nacer’s Ned relates a hair-raising series of personal disasters which culminate in a lament that climate change is a done deal — we are doomed. The issue is then dropped. American plays often trivialize climate change this way: it is either good for a punch line or used as a bogeyman. Granted, the latter is the dire perspective of the dramatist’s depressed character, but the truth is that things are being done and that much more needs to be done to mitigate what’s coming. But making a difference means taking up the struggle for real change — in attitudes and behavior, society and politics, and yes, in our connection (spiritual and otherwise) with the earth.
Unfortunately, Small Mouth Sounds undercuts the notion that radical change is needed or possible. At one point, the retreat’s Teacher insists (hysterically) that the attendees change in some way. But no one does, not really — aside from ironing out their “significant” relationships. The emphasis on psychodrama has been designed to comfort well-heeled theatergoers, who will leave the play soothed: even at a silent retreat, transformation comes down to modest demands. The world may be going to hell, but there’s nothing to be done but improve your personal life, enjoy the consumer ride, and find solace in the Hallmark card bromide that no one is truly alone. (Exempting the world’s 65 million refugees, of course. But they have no buying power.) In a recent Harvard Magazine interview, Wohl says her new play about climate change, Continuity, is slated for production this spring at the Manhattan Theatre Club. I welcome the effort, but based on this script I can’t help but be a bit apprehensive. Do we need yet another affable hymn to passivity? Our theater has been in self-serving retreat for so long from so many realities — it is time to bare more of them on stage.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.