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A CurtainUp Review
Lips Together, Teeth Apart
By Elyse Sommer
Like It's Only a Play currently currently a Broadway crowd pleaser, Lips Together Teeth Apart is not a new play. Premiering as it did in 1991, McNally's treatment of the AIDS crisis through a very different lens combined with a knockout cast made it an Off-Broadway hit. On the other hand, the even older It's Only a Play flopped in 1982 but is now drawing crowds, thanks to McNally's script updates and a big name cast.
And so, is McNally's greater than ever popularity, going to repeat, and possibly exceed, Lips Together Teeth Apart's initial success? I doubt it. Though better written and more meaningful than It's Only a Play, the script resists updating or new follow-up to an earlier play as Mothers and Sons was to the teleplay Andre's Mother . Thus Lips. . . is locked into being an interesting precursor to his best and still potent AIDS drama, Love! Valor! Compassion!
Director Peter Dubois has staged this revival respectfully and elegantly — complete with a swimming pool. As designed by Alexander Dodge that pool remains front and center in the Fire Island beach house that was left to his sister Sally by her brother who recently died of AIDS. Costume, lighting,and sound design round out the classy stagecraft. However, the performances of the two couples spending the 4th of July at that house are not 100% on the mark.
Since I didn't see the original and Christine Baranski now evokes images of a willowy sophisticate, Tracee Chimo actually seems a more ideal choice to play Chloe Truman. Her animated performance is fittingly contrasted by America Ferrera (best known for TVs Ugly Betty)as her less hyper sister-in-law Sally Truman. Michael Chernus and Austin Lysy, both fine actors, seem miscast as their husbands; the former as the coarse Sam Truman (originally played by Nathan Lane) and the latter as the cool and distant John Haddock (originally Anthony Heald).
McNally's story is still buttressed by his always trenchant dialogue but as is the case with the cast, it's also only partially engaging. The idea of exposing the racism and homophobia of four variously connected heterosexuals by using that sad legacy to plop them down temporarily in the midst of a gay community has lost its shock value.
It's not that AIDS, homophobia and racial bigotry have disappeared like trolley cars and horse drawn carriages. But that pool, which is so crucial to the story as a symbol of that period's angst about being infected, does imbue this production with a dated feeling.
Despite all my naysaying, McNally's managing to write an essentially gay issue play without a single gay character on stage is quite an accomplishment. The same goes for the way he pumps up the situation with unspoken issues that each of the four people who are on stage knows but doesn't speak about. Praiseworthy too is the smoothness with which all these complications are revealed via internal monlogues.
Some of the subjects that come up for discussion are indeed as apt today as in 1990 — case in point, when Sally responds to Chloe's "I think these are terrible times to be a parent in" with "I think these are terrible times to be anything in."
More pluses come courtesy of Chloe's hilarious musical theater shenanigans, even though they are so overdone that they stay out their welcome. And, while none of these people are especially likeable or interesting, McNally does allow them to gain as their own problems come to light. Thus even Sally,, the play's most thoughtful character, admits she was glad never to have seen her brother dancing with another man but tearfully recognizes the painful reality that now she never will.
At three hours with two intermissions, the involved plot does ramble on and on (problems to be revealed include child bearing problems, adultery, and a serious illness). Neither periodic riffs from Cosi Fan Tutte, the amusing bits of business or the drama of what finally happens at poolside, can hide the fact that this once super sharp satire has lost much of its bite.