Can a playwright create an engaging and dramatically effective show where dialogue is at a minimum? In the case of Small Mouth Sounds, Bess Wohl has mostly succeeded.
The plot centers on six disparate individuals who have all registered for a weeklong retreat of meditation and reflection. Very soon, under the direction of the facility’s spiritual leader, the participants are instructed not to speak during their time at the center. This begins an odyssey, often funny, sometimes poignant, of self-discovery punctuated by self-important, vacuous lectures from the disembodied voice of the guru.
The entertaining and fascinating aspect of the play is watching how the players interact and function, mostly without mouthing any words, within the theater’s unique configuration—a rectangular facility with rows of seating along both lengths. A small stage, along the width, with six folding chairs for the group of actors completes the setting. The expanded performance space opens up the production. The actors can spread on the floor in their sleeping bags. We see them connect (or not), cooperate, and learn to communicate silently as they seek answers to their own series of questions and problems.
Bess Wohl has crafted an original take on the tried and true formula of observing a group of unrelated characters come together and bond. Small Mouth Sounds can be seen as a statement on human nature, our need for companionship, and the ability to take risks. The show is moving, playful, humorous and, for the most part, captivating. The production is more successful during the muted portions of the play as opposed to the occasional monologues. Towards the end, the uniqueness and diverting nature of the show begins to lose some steam but, overall, this is a satisfying and worthwhile play to see.
The ensemble cast is a crazy quilt of characters. Marcia DeBonis as Joan, is an oversized woman approaching mid-age, who approaches the week with an apprentice’s zeal. The actress has a nice comic touch, but also a believable empathy for her partner, Judy, portrayed by Quincy Tyer Bernstine. Judy, unhappy to leave the comforts of home and the use of her electronic devices, is the more aggrieved of the twosome. Ms. Bernstine, with more restrained grimaces and pained looks, that are not all related to her self-imprisonment at the retreat, is the ying to Joan’s yang. Rodney, tall, bearded and handsome, is played superbly by Babak Tafti. He is the true believer, at least for the weekend, of everything healthy for both mind and body. The actor deserves kudos for putting his modesty on hold for a very funny scene midway through the show. Brad Heberlee, as Ned, is the most frenzied performer, both in his character portrayal and actions. His troubles, laid out in an over long monologue, are both funny and heartbreaking. Zoe Winters, as Alicia, a harried blonde is more detached from the others and her motives for attending somewhat of a mystery. The actress does well more in tandem with one of the other characters. Finally, Max Baker, as Jan, the oldest member of the six person group, is, well, a conundrum. We know and learn very little about him until the very final scene. Baker utters the fewest words in the production, but the veteran actor conveys an impressive number of emotions and feelings from just a stare or simple hand movement. Jojo Gonzalez is the teacher whose voice is occasionally heard lecturing the participants. He convincingly displays a world-weariness as he spouts sanctimonious platitudes that he doesn’t seem to believe himself.
Director Rachel Chavkin needs to call on all her skill and experience to helm the show since dialogue is at a premium. She, instead, focuses on facial expressions, manic gestures, and a bevy of non-verbals to build and carry along the plot. She effectively juxtaposes the action between the performers seated on stage with their sullen, perplexing, and scornful looks and the action that takes place on the floor in front of the audience. She handles a very, shall we say, raucous situation with aplomb and comic gusto.
Small Mouth Sounds, an absorbing and winning production, through October 9th.