KPBS AIRDATE: November 11, 1992
If the state of your life or your world has got you grinding your teeth, the title of Terrence McNally’s latest play has the pre-sleep exercise remedy: “Lips Together, Teeth Apart.” It’s a provocative and intriguing title, and so’s the play in many ways. But what’s really intriguing is the taut and terrific production at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre.
You may be familiar with McNally’s two other recent successes: “Frankie and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune” and “The Lisbon Traviata.” All three deal with the waxing and waning of relationships, but this is the broadest piece. All deal with the gay community. Even though “Frankie and Johnny” is about a hetero couple, it’s been speculated that they’re really a very thinly veiled gay couple (note the two male names), made straight for a mainstream audience.
Fresh from a long, successful Off-Broadway run, “Lips Together” also focuses on a straight couple — two, in fact, on Fire Island for the Fourth of July. But the gay world is right next door, just offstage, and it’s a palpable presence.
Sally has just inherited the beach house from her gay brother, who recently died of AIDS. She and her husband Sam have invited his sister and brother-in-law for Independence Day. But nobody is very free here. Metaphorically speaking, they’re all trapped and grinding their teeth.
Both marriages are falling apart. Everyone has secrets that can’t be told — undisclosed affairs, pregnancies, illnesses. No one will admit that they won’t go in the swimming pool because it just might be… infected. Actually, there’s a lot of disease on the stage: from heartsickness to cancer. From individual self-doubt to a whole country’s disease. Symbolically, a man offstage swims out too far and is drowned.
Amid all this seeming ponderousness, there are loads of laughs. McNally is quick with the wit and repartée, and director Will Roberson and his extremely competent cast deliver like crazy.
Of course, I personally think there’s little excuse for a three-act modern play. A lot could be trimmed here. But the smartass banter, the excellent design work and the crisp direction keep the interest and the energy high.
The little soliloquies of each spotlighted character get to be a bit much, but they’re pulled off with aplomb. These people seem real — very flawed, very lost. Angry and angst -ridden, fearful and flailing. Just like the rest of us.
Paul Nolan is tough and vulnerable as the New Jersey macho-man, Sam. Kate Kiley is deliciously annoying as his shallow, jabbering sister, Chloe, who describes herself as “a walking nerve-end.” Her husband, John, is played by Kim Bennett with believable intelligence, arrogance, cynicism and self-loathing. Shana Wride puts in an aching performance as Sally, the sensitive artist who can’t come to terms with her brother’s death — or his homosexuality. She’s a woman who seeks the truth but can’t be honest. “Nobody wants to listen to who we really are,” Sam says, and we nod empathically.
There’s a lot here for all of us. About our times and our lives and our relationships with ourselves and others. It’s a triumphant play in that it can make us laugh and think. And it’s presented in a way that makes us hope that the Gaslamp gets back on its feet again. Soon.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.