Bleak Complexity: SPEAKING IN TONGUES at the Walnut’s Independence on 3

As SPEAKING IN TONGUES opens, two couples are about to cheat on their partners. Their dialog develops in unison; each pairing uttering the same lines.

Sonia/Jane: Tell me about your wife…
Peter/Leon: Why?
Sonia/Jane: Is she happy?…
Peter: Yes
Leon: Maybe
Peter/Leon: I don’t know. Why do you want to know?
Sonia/Jane: I want to know something about the woman I’m hurting.

Karen Peakes and Ian Merrill Peakes in Walnut Street Theatre’s Speaking In Tongues in the Independence Studio on 3. Photo by Mark Garvin.

One couple goes through with the one night stand, the other doesn’t, but it is clear that even the apparently faithful are essentially untrustworthy. These themes of infidelity and perfidy run through this bleak but engaging play, deftly directed by John Peakes on the stage of Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3.

The first two scenes are masterfully choreographed, demonstrating the clever writing of Australian author Andrew Bovell as well as the skill of Peakes and his high-quality cast, which includes his son Ian Merrill Peakes as Pete and daughter-in-law Karen Peakes as Pete’s wife Jane. The rest of the first act deals with the aftermath of the affair, and coincidences pile on top of each other as the characters intersect in new alignments.

At intermission, we are left wondering what drama remains for the two couples. Surprisingly, the second act picks up on the first not by squeezing new and less convincing conflicts into the existing characters, but by exploring the themes of the first act through interrelated stories. Two monologues from before the break take on new meanings as we meet more individuals racked by familiar guilt and infidelity (played by the same four actors, costumed distinctly by Julia Poiesz).

A few jokes lighten the mood, but SPEAKING IN TONGUES remains almost unremittingly gloomy. Bovell perhaps belabors this dour worldview, and he certainly unnecessarily overreaches when he brings in child molestation as a character back story — too serious an issue to be treated as a minor plot point so late in the play.

“Well, let’s all go slit our wrists now,” one lady muttered to me as we left the play. Although somber, SPEAKING IN TONGUES is a cleverly written and well executed work, with an emotional intensity magnified by the Walnut’s intimate upstairs space (set design by Glen Sears). The various plot lines intersect with each other in multiple ways, creating a complex piece, reminiscent of the multiple-vignette movies Magnolia and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts.

Pulling off this meaty work required a directorial skill and impressive acting range. William Zielinski is particularly well-cast as the world-weary cop Leon Zat and also shines as suspected criminal Nick Robson, but the entire cast turns in excellent performances. (Susan Riley Stevens rounds out the four-actor ensemble.) You may not leave SPEAKING IN TONGUES feeling happy or joyful, but you should leave satisfied.

By Andrew Bovell
Directed by John Peakes
March 29 – April 17, 2011
Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3
825 Walnut Street
Philadelphia PA 19107

Published by Stage Magazine.

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