Small Mouth Sounds
Reviewed by Terry Morgan
The Eli & Edythe Broad Stage
Through Jan. 28
If film is primarily a visual medium, then theatre is mainly about the spoken word. The emphasis should fall upon “spoken.” Plays are meant to be performed, not read. So, when playwright Bess Wohl decided to make her play Small Mouth Sounds largely silent, she was adding a level of difficulty to her endeavor. Happily, the results are a success, and the current Ars Nova production presented by the Broad Stage is both amusing and compelling.
Six people have gathered at a center in the woods to participate in a “retreat from yourself,” guided by a guru (Orville Mendoza) only heard over a PA system. They’re meant to be silent the entire time, which is an adjustment for everybody. Rule follower Ned (Ben Beckley) is irritated by the serene Rodney’s (Edward Chin-Lyn) flouting of certain regulations, and even more by the fact that the woman he’s attracted to, Alicia (Brenna Palughi), is flirting with Rodney. Joan (Socorro Santiago) and Judy (Cherene Snow), a couple, are dealing with trouble in their relationship, while Jan (Connor Barrett) just wants to sleep next to a cherished framed photo.
Beckley is mostly funny in his mounting frustration, but demonstrates more dramatic shadings in a speech where he reveals the awesome depth of Ned’s bad luck. Chin-Lyn is coolly composed as the confident Rodney, who parades around nude in front of the group, exuding a subtle “more spiritual than thou” vibe. Palughi does notable work as the scattered and self-centered Alicia, and is very comical in a scene where she covertly eats crunchy food in the dark as the group is trying to sleep.
Santiago is good as the emotional and distracted Joan, who wants to believe in the guru’s teachings, while Snow is terrific as the more stable Judy, who frequently casts a dubious eye on the proceedings. Barrett is memorable as the sadly smiling Jan, who is kind and helpful to all. Finally, Mendoza is hilarious as the imperfect guru who stops the class several times to take a phone call; he’s also surprisingly moving in a scene where he faces a personal loss.
Director Rachel Chavkin has a tricky problem to contend with in this piece, which is to keep a mostly silent show continually interesting for an audience with no recourse to visual spectacle —and she succeeds via the detailed performances of her ensemble and her pacing of the action. As both an experiment and entertainment, Wohl’s play acquits itself well, although its humorous aspects work better than its serious ones. She stacks the deck with a surfeit of tragic characters, but thankfully this doesn’t sink the show. Mention should also be made of Stowe Nelson’s sound design, which begins the production with a fabulously thunderous rainstorm effect.
If you’re open to something a little different and have the patience to watch a largely silent show, you may well enjoy Small Mouth Sounds.
The Eli & Edythe Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica; www.thebroadstage.org; Running time: approximately one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.