Lips Together, Teeth Apart
In Lips Together, Teeth Apart, playwright Terrence McNally pulls the rug out from under his characters, but he lets them hit the ground with grace. In this comedy, there is a tragic undertow that can literally and figuratively sweep lives out to sea. First staged in 1991 when AIDS was considered a death sentence and fear about its transmissibility had its own epidemic, Lips Together uses the disease not as a specific topic, but as the elephant in the room that largely goes unmentioned but that forces the characters to face their own fears in potentially hopeful fashion.
Although McNally wrote the play under far different social circumstances, it feels neither like a dated issues play nor an artifact of more benighted times. I hadn’t seen the play in 20 years, but it feels more potent now, whether because of cultural evolution, personal changes, or the illuminating production it is now receiving at New Conservatory Theatre Center.
Set at a beach house on Fire Island, Lips Together is another McNally straight-gay fish-out-of-water story. In his farce The Ritz, a straight schlub who is wrongly fingered by the mob takes refuge in a gay bathhouse. In the newer play, two married straight couples are spending a weekend at a house completely surrounded by gay neighbors (whom we never see) who elicit a low-key queasiness. "The boys from Ipanema" is how one of the husbands describes the neighbors, whose efforts at friendliness are rebuffed.
The house is an inheritance from the late brother of one of the wives, and she has never quite processed his gayness. "I’m glad I never saw my brother dance with another man," says the introspective Sally before lamenting, "and now I never will."
The gay milieu, and the foursome’s irrational fear that the swimming pool will give AIDS to anyone who enters it, become catalysts for each to strip away at the veneers hiding individual fears and resentments. Heavy duty some of these confessions may be, but McNally never waits too long before landing a knowing laugh. That one of the wives is a community-theater star provides multiple opportunities for stage references that all can share in. "I prefer her Mame better than Lucille Ball’s," says the coarse Sam about sister Chloe, and when Chloe asks Sally if she liked her in A Little Night Music, Sally turns a simple "yes" into a hilarious negative that sails straight over Chloe’s head.
The comic magic behind that "yes" is delivered by Marie O’Donnell, who finds exquisite depths in her portrayal of the seemingly bland, introverted Sally. Chloe is on the opposite side of the spectrum, a manic diva whose self-aggrandizing chatter provides a buffer against masked insecurities. Sarah Mitchell is a wonderful ball of nattering energy as Chloe, and expertly initiates much of the comedy.
As her cynical husband John, Cameron Weston effectively uses understatement to deliver his tart lines, making more dramatic his inevitable emotional explosion. Michael Sally doesn’t tamp down the broad strokes of rougher-hewn Sam, and what at first might seem like caricature becomes an ingratiating bluntness.
Lips Together, Teeth Apart is a complicated play served well by Kuo-Hao Lo’s set and Christian Mejia’s ever-changing lighting design. Director Dennis Lickteig has pulled it all together with his smart staging and obvious sensitivity to the material. NCTC has long been a champion of McNally’s plays, and this is arguably its finest representation of the playwright yet.
Lips Together, Teeth Apart will run at New Conservatory Theatre Center through July 1. Tickets are $25-$45. Call 861-8972 or go to www.nctcsf.org.