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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Small Mouth Sounds
Originally produced off-Broadway by Ars Nova and now staged by director Rachel Chavkin for a limited national tour, Small Mouth Sounds rests somewhere between introspection and satire. Clever and deeply affecting, Chavkin's production plops us among this group of suffering souls and allows us to enjoy the humor until the laughs catch in our throats. At various intervals, someone gets to speak.
Although the characters don't communicate much about their circumstances, we quickly figure out what's going on with them. Big and bearded Jan (played by Connor Barrett) has suffered a loss. Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn) is a famous new agey guru who is continuously in some sort of a stretch or meditative pose. Joan (Socorro Santiago) and Judy (Cherene Snow) are a couple who are doing this retreat together, but aren't necessarily on the same page about it. Ned (Ben Beckley), whose list of problems could fill an anthology, is scrupulous about following the rules. And Alicia (Brenna Palughi) arrives late and can't detach from the cell phone that she's not supposed to be using. In short, she cheats. But they all do.
We never actually see the instructor (Orville Mendoza), but his voice flows out over a sound system relating treacly parables, guiding his students to write their intentions, and giving away little tidbits about himself. “I recently obtained… e-mail. It is very…convenient,” he'll say, and of course his retreaters are not permitted to respond. At one point, Ned is permitted to approach the instructor and ask a question, which turns into one honey of a monologue.
Apart from observing the silence, keeping electronic devices silent and listening to the instructor, the retreat does not offer a lot of amenities or impose many rules. The grounds are somewhere pastoral, allowing the attendees to go out into nature, spontaneously jump in the river, be alone, or seek each other's company. Participants can bunk with men or women. If sex happens, then so be it. Ditto, wild animal encounters. The grounds have bears. The retreaters have been warned.
Even with precious few words at their disposal, the players establish who they are, what they want, and what they can get from other people in surprisingly organic ways. You just know, for example, that Chin-Lyn's Rodney, with his beatific glances, sly smiles and perfect (usually shirtless) physique, is going to royally piss somebody off and most likely seduce somebody else. Barrett's Jan has a secret, while Palughi's Alicia is a good-hearted and quite damaged mess who will fling her arms around a total stranger when the going gets rough.
As easy as it might have been to overplay the material's satire, director Chavkin is remarkably even-handed. Even with little dialogue and a certain amount of meditation-y activity, the production's tone and pace are consistently engaging and there is no difficulty staying locked in. Sound designer Stowe Nelson and video designer Andrew Schnedier supply some evocative scene-establishing bits. You don't realize how assaultive a downpour of rain can be until it's the only sound you hear. Given the play's immersive qualities, the standard prescenium configuration of the Broad's mainstage space may not have been the ideal venue for this work, but Small Mouth Soundsplays like dynamite, nonetheless.
Wohl has a few surprises tucked away, awaiting us at the finish line. Mendoza's seemingly monastic instructor may not be entirely what he presents, but like the good spiritual guru that he is, the man's heart is in the right place. “You are not alone,” he tells his charges toward the play's finale. Actually, yes they jolly well are, and that's a truth that no silence or noise can mask.
For Curtainup's review of the 2016 Off-Broadway production with a different cast, go here.
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Small Mouth Sounds by Bess Wohl
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Cast: Connor Barrett, Ben Beckley, Edward Chin-Lyn, Orville Mendoza, Brenna Palughi, Socorro Santiago, Cherene Snow
Scenic Design: Laura Jellinek
Lighting Design: Mike Inwood
Sound Design: Stowe Nelson
Video Design: Andrew Schneider
Costume Design: Tilly Grimes
Stage Manager: James Steele
Fight Director: Bjorn Johnson
Plays through January 28, 2018 at the Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. (310) 434-3200, www.thebroadstage.org.
Running time: one hour and fifty minutes with no intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson .
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