Following the opening of Terrence McNally's Master Class in the West End, the same author's Lips Together, Teeth Apart is given its British première by Mark Clements at Derby.
McNally takes a quartet of early-middle-aged yuppies, puts them in a holiday chalet on the New York resort of Fire Island on a Fourth of July weekend, equips them with individual and collective attributes and background, and basically lets the characters get on with it. Sam, married to Sally, is the brother of Chloe, married to John; John and Sally had a brief fling, which both their spouses know about but which is never discussed openly; nor are Sally's pregnancy, proneness to miscarriage and resultant angst; John has recently been diagnosed with cancer; the house, on the gay part of the island, has been bequeathed to Sally by her late brother, and all four display varying degrees of low-level AIDS paranoia... This is effectively the entire plot, in a play driven by character rather than events.
John Guerrasio and Nicola Glick get most of the laughs as amiable joker Sam and compulsive chatterbox Chloe, ill matched respectively with Barbara Barnes's high-strung Sally and Robert Jezek's tightly-buttoned John. Periodically the action (and even, in Andrew Elsegood's sound design, the background noise) freezes for a soliloquy from one character or another before resuming without a beat; these insights, particularly in the earlier stages, advance the play more markedly than the external holiday mundanities.
Perhaps the strangest characteristic of the piece is that the author seems to have felt compelled to include a pre-emptive defence of it and its like in his contribution to the programme, addressing British criticism of American plays for being "sentimental" when they are simply concerned with feelings. True, Lips Together, Teeth Apart (the title comes from a mantra intended to cure John of grinding his teeth whilst asleep) could fall prey to such accusations, but sentimentality is not the issue. What McNally has done is to bring his characters together and explore their emotional landscapes and interactions without bothering with any real external events; they may as well be in a closed room.
This approach can indubitably generate sympathy and understanding, even empathy, in an audience – and given a skilled writer like McNally and sensitive direction such as that provided by Clements, it does – but one may still experience a desire for Things to Happen; drama, after all, can be simplistically translated from the Greek as "the doing thing". We are asked to care about these four people, simply because they are people, with people's problems; and we do care – but such caring, when past events are merely alluded to and no present events intervene, has its limits.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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