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A CurtainUp Review
Mouth to Mouth

. . .look at us; conglomerations of meat and juices tarted up in Armani. And where do we all end up? In a mass of stinking putrefaction..— Gompertz, a doctor who sees life as a lonely, meaningless business-- yet interrupts dour remarks like this long enough to nod tocelebrities passing his table at a trendy restaurant where he's having dinner with Frank, a patient and blocked playwright
Mouth to Mouth
Lisa Emery and Christpher Abbott in Mouth to Mouth
(Photo: Monique Carboni)
In the dozen years Curtainup has been covering theater, the New Group has consistently enriched the Off-Broadway scene with substantive new works, imports and revivals that are always smartly directed and acted. Since I still have fond memories of Kevin Elyot's My Night With Reg in 1997 (it won London Critics Circle and Olivier awards in 1994), I was happy when the company announced it would launch its 2008-09 season with the U.S. premiere Elyot's Mouth to Mouth. (It had a much praised world premiere at London's Royal Court).

I'm happy to report that I was not disappointed. Elyot has, if anything, honed his ability to give universality to what some might file under the rubric of gay plays. As My Night With Reg was an examination of the AIDS epidemic, so Mouth to Mouth is an often comic but ultimately tragic story about betrayals of friendship and brotherhood, and the kind of loss that makes previous discontents seem trivial. Unlike My Night With Reg's all gay cast, only two out of the seven characters in Mouth to Mouth are gay. The New Group production is buoyed by the sensitive direction of Mark Brokaw and a fine acting ensemble— a few of whom, including the always superb Lisa Emery, worked together in another New Group import, Abigail's Party..

Glancing through the program I couldn't help wondering why choreographer John Caraffa was featured in the production staff list. After all, Mouth to Mouth is not a dance show, but a drama. However, Carraga contributes marvelously with a scene in which Lisa Emery's Laura is coaxed by her stage son Phillip (Christopher Abbott) to dance a tango with him. Watching her give in, at first reluctantly and then with great verve, is one of the play's emotional high points —it's a light, lovely moment, yet one that's fraught with oedipal undercurrents.

My singling out that mother-son tango isn't a case of an isolated standout scene, however. Taken in its entirety, Mouth to Mouth is an affecting and effectively structured story — humorous and ordinary on the surface, but underneath that ordinariness it unfurls issues about love and betrayal among friends and relations. Like Harold Pinter with Betrayal, Elyot begins his story near the end and flashes backward and forward. He has variously paired characters spill out their secrets, with each revelation moving us closer to the play's pivotal event: a motorcycle exit from a family party that leaves practically everyone wracked by grief and remorse.

Though the revelatory duets point to multiple betrayals, Elyot's central character, Frank (David Cale), is the most remorseful of all. An HIV positive gay playwright who has made himself part of his boyhood chum Laura's (Emery) family, he's come to realize that the life saving kiss that gives the play its title was prompted more by his own lust-driven need rather than genuine necessity, and that it violated his long-standing friendship with Laura.

Much as Frank longs to relieve his guilty conscience, the other characters are too self-absorbed to listen to any confessions. Instead he is doomed to listen to everyone else. While viewers are left to draw their own conclusions about the true cause of the tragic conclusion of that family party, Frank's realization that he can't relieve his own guilt by unburdening himself to Laura, does make us believe that he genuinely and deeply cares for her.

Cale initially indulges himself in the increasingly popular acting style of creating a sense of intimate conversation by speaking too low to be heard clearly even in a small theater like the Acorn. That quibble aside, the fact that we are able to see Frank as a lonely, tortured soul rather than as a totally self-deluded, unsympathetic character, owes everything to Cale's finely etched performance.

The opening, which finds Frank and Laura at her suburban home's kitchen table, is bookended with a return to the same scene. The in between backward journey to that fateful party includes two scenes in a trendy London restaurant with Frank and Gompertz (Andrew Polk), Frank's gay doctor, who seems to have been added for comic relief. A smart move. Polk is priceless, deftly switching from heavy topics (lingering despair over his partner's death) to contemplating the menu, keeping a sharp eye out for passing celebrities, and cattily commenting on seducible waiters.

The whole cast assembles when the action moves to the expertly orchestrated family gathering at the heart of the play. It's organized by Laura and her husband Dennis's (Richard Topol) to celebrate the return from a foreign exchange trip to Spain of their 15-year-old son Philip (Christopher Abbott, well cast as a boy on the brink of manhood and game for any experience promising excitement). Laura is not too pleased by the arrival of two unexpected guests, Dennis's younger brother Roger (a deliciously outspokenly anti-intellectual Darren Goldstein) and his pregnant wife Cornelia (Elizabeth Jasicki terrific as a woman who sounds dumb, but isn't). As the get-together detours to several duets, we see more of the dynamics of the various relationships at work— especially Laura's inability to let go of the son who has been the r'aison d'etre for her staying in a stultifying marriage.

The author gives all these characters terrific and very real and often hilariously acerbic dialogue. Frank's stalled playwriting for unprofitable Fringe productions seeds some especially wry exchanges. In a sly reference to his own career, Elyot has Frank tell Laura that his writer's block isn't helped by critics accusing him of always writing about himself which they see as" a sign of creative bankruptcy" — an accusation he denies even though his last play was about a fictitious meeting between Proust and, you guessed it, Frank. Still, Frank has a point when he denies his narcissism with "but my life isn't that interesting, and if it were I wouldn't have the time to write about it."

The many short scenes pose quite a challenge to the director and his design team since they involve back and forth shifts between the kitchen and the living room of Laura's house, as well as the set-up for the two restaurant scenes. But Brokaw and his team manage to avoid a plethora of blackouts by making smart use of the often over and misused device of a sliding curtain. To the accompaniment of David Van Tieghem lovely original music, that curtain evokes an image of dancers floating across the Acorn's wide stage and turns the scene changes into pleasant musical interludes rather than annoying distractions.

The play comes full circle in just 85 minutes and without a neatly dotted i's and crossed t's ending, but that's life. And life, with its frustrations and passions, its intense but also painful connections, is what this well crafted play is all about.

Links to other plays mentioned:
My Night With Reg
Abigail's Party
Mouth to Mouth-London

Mouth to Mouth By Kevin Elyot
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Cast: Christpher Abbott (Phillip), David Cale (Frank), Lisa Emery (Laura), Daren Goldstein (Roger), Elizabeth Jasicki (Cornelia), Andrew Polk (Gompertz), Richard Topol (Dennis)
Running Time: 85 minutes without Intermission
New Group at Theater Row's Acorn Theater, 410 W. 42n St. 279-4100
Sets: Riccardo Hernandez
Costumes: Michael Krass
Lighting:,Mark McCullough
Sound and original music: David Van Tieghem
Stage Manager: Fran Rubenstein
Dialect Coach: Deborah Hecht
Choreographer: John Carrafa
Mondays @ 8pm, Tues @ 7pm, Wed to Sat @ 8pm; Saturdays @ 2pm
From 10/21/08; opening 11/06/08; closing12/27/08--closing was moved up to 12/06/08.
Tickets: $56.25
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 10/31/08
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