Lips Together, Teeth Apart

Circle Theatre

By Adam Langer

One of the most common and irritating forms of criticism today is revealed in such remarks as “We’ve seen this before” or “It’s been done already.” An abundance of literature has made possible a never-ending game of comparison to earlier plays or books. American family dramas invite comparison with Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and August Wilson; adult relationship comedies resurrect the hoary ghost of 1970s Neil Simon; criticism of the intellectual elite shrieks Edward Albee; grim absurdism, Samuel Beckett. One can almost construct a ridiculous upside-down family tree with Aristotle at the roots, Shakespeare at the trunk, and David Henry Hwang or John Patrick Shanley at the noticeably thin branches.

The trouble with this game is that its players assume that similarity means inferiority. “Smacks of early Caryl Churchill” immediately suggests that Churchill did it before and did it better and that some plagiarizing dilettante is copying her. Of course there is some truth to such observations–the theatrical landscape is littered with feeble knockoffs, “homages,” and outright thefts. What the comparison game ignores, however, is that sometimes similarity is not a sign of imitation or inferiority but of how close the writer has come to fundamental truths. Sometimes authors tackling similar issues nail their targets so deftly that they achieve similar results independently.

Consider Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart, a play reminiscent of many others yet right on the money when it comes to middle-class denial and dysfunctionality. There are echoes of Lanford Wilson in McNally’s detailing of the worst of times in this tale of two hopelessly heterosexual couples vacationing on predominantly gay Fire Island on a Fourth of July weekend. There’s more than a hint of Albee in the characters of Chloe–a whooshing tornado of a woman–and her dyspeptic, somewhat academic husband, John, who’s desperately pursuing an affair with his moody, distant sister-in-law Sally. And there are equal doses of Richard Greenberg’s Eastern Standard and Alan Ayckbourn’s Distant Friends in the witty banter and rote interactions among John, Chloe, Sally, and Sally’s well-meaning but petulant, dopey husband, Sam, Chloe’s brother. Perhaps in acknowledgment of the familiarity of his setup, McNally even drops the word “Chekhovian” at one point.

But in this case similarity should not breed contempt. At the time he wrote this play, McNally had had a rather hit-or-miss career. The recent film of his Love! Valour! Compassion!, his libretto for the musical Ragtime, the comparative success of Master Class, and the brouhaha his controversial Corpus Christi whipped up at the Manhattan Theatre Club have given McNally’s career a boost of late, detracting attention from his less than stellar earlier work: the backstage comedy It’s Only a Play is hopelessly derivative, and others like The Ritz and Bad Habits clearly show their age. But in Lips Together, Teeth Apart he gets it just right. Like the works it resembles, McNally’s profound if at times overreaching play seems familiar because it bears such a striking, painful resemblance to reality.

Lips Together, Teeth Apart opens with a minute-long silent, frozen image of the two vacationing couples in their purportedly idyllic setting, emphasizing not what is said but what is not. As they lounge about on the deck, taking in the sun and performing the torturous activity known as “relaxing,” the characters bury themselves in activities designed to cloak the unspoken realities around them; as one character asserts, “Fuck the truth. It’s more trouble than it’s worth.”

Sally, who inherited the Fire Island house from a brother who died of AIDS, immerses herself in her landscape painting in order to control her guilt and grief over her brother’s death, her one-night fling with John, and her frequent miscarriages. Sam, a construction worker, rummages through the house, ignoring the fact that he’s afraid to have a child and that Sally betrayed him. Williams-educated prep-school admissions officer John buries his lust for Sally in crossword puzzles and in a cutting standoffishness, which also masks an all-encompassing fear: he’s recently been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. Meanwhile the irrepressible Chloe, an actress in community-theater musicals, is a nonstop spray of activity, concealing her knowledge of what’s going on around her by fixing snacks, changing her clothes, blurting out French phrases and show tunes, and engaging in witty if inane banter.

At first we learn the characters’ secrets through strange interludes in which they speak their innermost thoughts. But as the play progresses through its three deftly structured acts, the characters begin to divulge the thoughts they’d kept to themselves. Slowly and powerfully the play’s situation–a seemingly ordinary weekend getaway–devolves into accusations of infidelity, admissions of guilt, and bald statements of the fear of death and loneliness, as each character is stripped to his or her pathetic but recognizably human essence.

It’s a credit to McNally and to Alena Murguia, who directed this achingly well realized Circle Theatre staging, that despite some moments of melodrama Lips Together, Teeth Apart never turns maudlin. Nor do McNally’s dysfunctional characters ever sacrifice their human foibles to likability. As one character observes, “To know me better is not to like me”–a statement that registers profoundly. John’s probably terminal diagnosis of cancer makes his rude, selfish behavior more understandable, but he’s no less a bastard. David Krajecki plays him with such precision and intelligence, prowling the stage like a lonely, territorial vampire and engaging Sam in a chilling wrestling match, that one wants to rip the newspaper out of his hands and thwack him with it. Similarly, Sally’s heartfelt revelations of the fears that surfaced after her brother’s death don’t make up for her essential selfishness. Janelle Snow’s lachrymose portrayal makes Sally’s sadness pitiable, but you’d still rather not have her at your dinner party.

Chloe and Sam, the brother and sister betrayed by their spouses, are far more sympathetic characters. One comes to understand that their behavior is based solely on the desperate need to be loved–and also that they’ll never get the love they need. Their only truly happy moments come when they’re dancing with each other. Chloe is brilliantly played by Patti Paul as a more vulnerable, pathetic version of Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (whom Paul played recently, and very effectively). Robert Bailey’s awkward, childlike Sam is so heartbreaking you almost want to send him home with an all-day sucker and a pat on the head.

The only missteps in this exquisitely performed, superbly written play come when McNally tries to go beyond the instantly recognizable reality he’s created to engage in truisms and heavy-handed symbolism. When the play closes with the four characters onstage turning together to watch a shooting star–representing life’s ephemerality, of course–it’s one of many times one is inclined to say, “I’ve seen this before.” But this time the shock of recognition is not a compliment.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Greg Kolack.