“Small Mouth Sounds”
Long Wharf Theatre
It’s amazing at how much can be communicated without words. Long Wharf Theatre is currently presenting Bess Wohl’s interesting and absorbing play, “Small Mouth Sounds,” in a fine production, directed by Rachel Chavkin. The very concept of this play is that a group of six people are on a retreat in which they are not allowed to speak. Consequently, quite a lot is demanded of the actors to convey different feelings and plot points without the help of words. Fortunately, the cast of “Small Mouth Sounds” is uniformly good and one is always able to tell what’s going on, even with the sound of silence. “Small Mouth Sounds” is actually a touring production by Ars Nova and it makes for an intriguing first production of Long Wharf Theatre’s new season.
“Small Mouth Sounds” opened to raves in New York when it played Off-Broadway and, though this isn’t the strongest play I’ve ever seen, it’s easy to see why the New York critics liked this show so much. In a compact 100 minute production, one is able to watch the six people as they arrive at the retreat and how they spend the next few days using a minimum of words. As much of a challenge as this show is for the actors, it is just as daunting for playwright Bess Wohl to make her play work and to maintain interest throughout. Suffice it is to say, Wohl has created six fascinating characters and one really grows to care about them and how they interact. There is much humor in this show (including the hilarious speeches made by an unseen teacher, played by Orville Mendoza), as well as sorrow, and it is all expertly presented in “Small Mouth Sounds.”
A big part of the success of this show lies in the direction by Rachel Chavkin. Chavkin was just recently represented on Broadway by the musical “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” and her work in that production was monumental and amazing in a way that Broadway has never quite seen before. Chavkin’s contribution to “Small Mouth Sounds” isn’t quite in the same league, but it does demonstrate this director’s penchant for jumping at a challenge and making it work. Perhaps the strongest evidence of this is in the solid performances that she has elicited from all her actors.
As the conflicted character Ned, Ben Beckley does a super job of presenting a man whose life seems like a catastrophe (Beckley is rewarded a full monologue, in a rare instance in the show when someone actually does speak, and he is quite funny and quirky in his outlook on life). Matching Beckley is Connor Barrett, as Jan, who sports a full beard and remains something of an enigma until the somewhat unexpected conclusion (not to be revealed here). This actor also has fun in a humorous scene where he smokes pot with a fellow retreater. As the third male character, Rodney, the handsome and exotic Edward Chin-Lyn does a fine job as the most “new-age” person onstage—including a scene where he appears completely naked—though he has some secrets up his sleeve, as well.
Socorro Santiago, as Joan, and Cherene Snow, as Judy, play a pair of lesbian lovers and they both give wonderful performances. They also manage to convey the various vicissitudes of their relationship, including a wordless onstage argument in which the two express the problems and hurts between them. As Alicia, who is the last to arrive onstage, in a particularly funny moment in the show, Brenna Palughi is highly amusing, though she is most effective during a scene in which she displays her frustrations by making a call and screaming silently into the phone when she is prompted to leave a message.
All the performers in “Small Mouth Sounds” help mold their characters and are able to reveal the changes that they undergo during the silent retreat. Indeed, by the conclusion of the show, it truly feels like the audience has gotten to know the innermost secrets of these people, even without the help of words, and that things have shifted since the six actors first appear onstage. “Small Mouth Sounds” at Long Wharf Theatre may not be for all audiences, but if one is willing to take the journey that playwright Bess Wohl presents, there are rewards to be had in this show.
“Small Mouth Sounds” continues performances at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT through September 24, 2017. For tickets, please visit www.longwharf.org or call the box office at 203-787-4282.
Photo: (L-R): Ben Beckley, Brenna Palughi, Connor Barrett, Edward Chin-Lyn, Cherene Snow, and Socorro Santiago
Photo by T. Charles Erickson