Hmmm. Hmmm? Mmmhmm. Hmmph.
That’s my small mouth review of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, an Ars Nova production finishing its multi-city tour at the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre.
But since I really like words (the premise of this show is experimenting with silence), here comes my big mouth review:
As far as I can tell, this is a satire, although you know you’re on shaky ground when you’re not sure if the play knows it’s a satire. Anyway.
Six people come to an Institute to spend five days under the spiritual guidance of that maudit favorite, the con-artist celebrity, guru (Orville Mendoza) whom we never see but only hear. He promises that their lives will be changed. Cell phones, outside non-vegan food, and, most crucial, speaking are prohibited. We do hear the occasional small mouth sound—groans, orgasmic yelps, weeping.
As the 100 minute play progresses, we learn a little about each nameless character: the ripped Asian guy (Edward Chin-Lyn) who aggressively intrudes on other people’s boundaries; the bearded guy (Connor Barrett) who is extremely attached to a photograph in a frame and covered in bug bites; the middle-aged lesbian (Socorro Santiago) whose partner (Cherene Snow) is seriously ill; a hapless guy with the hat who recounts the run of bad luck that is so incredible that we expect it will be a joke; the flirty blonde (Brenna Palughi) who can’t follow the rules.
What they all share, apparently, is the wish to find meaning in their misery and then to find relief from that misery. Their teacher offers bromides: “You are not alone” as well as parables about frogs, and the ultimate evasion, “Oh, well.”
The actors have the theatrical fun of trying to communicate without spoken language, both with each other and with the audience, using only facial expressions and gestures. Sometimes it works, but it often looks like either a game of charades or an acting class exercise, lacking any subtlety of character revelation since there is none in the script. As directed by Rachel Chavkin, they move around the stage without any emotional reality. Their feelings are telegraphed, and so the show seems to mock them in their needy quest rather than sympathize with their pain.
To sum up: Oh, well.
[Ars Nova production, Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad Street] March 13-April 1, 2018; philadelphiatheatrecompany.org