by Hugh Hunter
After its Broadway debut in 1991, “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” by Terrence McNally won the prestigious Drama Desk Award for Best New Play. In his energetic revival now running at Old Academy Players in East Falls, director Rob Rosiello tries to recreate the excitement of the original triumph with mixed results.
T. Mark Cole has built a convincing wooden beach house that manages to convey a feeling of light and space. The steady sound of distant waves helps out, and sound designer Nancy Ridgeway has injected muted musical refrains into the show. (In addition to being a successful playwright, McNally is an equally successful librettist for musicals, most notably “Ragtime.”)
The storyline of “Lips” is simple. Two couples spend a Fourth of July weekend at The Pines, a well-to-do gay enclave on Fire Island. Both marriages are grievously troubled, and characters freely tell the audience about their innermost wants, even as they try to keep their secrets from the others on stage.
Dani Joy Foley shines as desperate Chloe. A community musical theater buff, Chloe constantly changes clothes as she bursts on and off stage with beach party ideas and mangled memories of the great show tunes. Foley’s amusing, hyper presence is a steady source of comic relief.
It is much needed, as the other characters are a lugubrious lot. Chloe’s husband, John, had a tryst with Sally and still yearns for her. Sally is married to Sam, who is also Chloe’s brother. These three regularly unburden their sorrows to the audience in freeze motion soliloquies, while Chloe’s manic chirping conceals her fear that the truth will come out.
The strength of the production lies in the ability of the four actors to create distinct personae. John (Darin DeVivo) is supercilious and aloof as he tries to hide his raw ardor for Sally. Sally (Caitlin Riley) is an attractive, musing woman who seems lost in private mourning as she paints and stares out to sea, while husband Sam (Eric Rupp) is always ready to erupt over Sally’s suspected infidelity.
If the central theme of “Lips” is the inability of people to state the simple truth, it shares the stage with another issue: homophobia. Sally inherited the beach house from her brother, David, who died of AIDS. These four people now find themselves surrounded by friendly gay neighbors. Even as they keep their distance, the group takes a curious, almost tourist-like interest in this alien world.
Despite the evident enthusiasm of director Rosiello and spirited performances from his cast, “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” is not aging gracefully. McNally’s attempt to achieve a broad tragicomic tone in the spirit of Chekhov falls flat. The relationship problems of this foursome have a soap opera quality, essentially a pretext for presenting a gay rights struggle that is no longer shocking or novel.
Old Academy Players is located at 3544 Indian Queen Ln.. “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” will run through March 24. For ticket information, call 215-843-1109.