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picture - Mouth to MouthTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published November 7, 2008


Mouth to Mouth

now playing Off Broadway at the Clurman on Theater Row

through December 27


If there is one play this season you should see twice, it is Kevin Elyot’s Mouth to Mouth. The play, which is told in fragments, and which goes back and forth in time, will, one suspects, be more resonant once you know how the pieces fit together. Sometimes, the putting the pieces together in this sort of theater is quite enough (and I did not feel cheated in the least sitting through it just once), but the parts which comprise the sum of Mouth to Mouth are richly complex and therefore clearly open to more careful scrutiny. Also, it is more than a guess that the nuances of behavior and the subtle shifts in characterization in the stunning ensemble performance will yield more profound admiration of the actors’ special gifts the second time around.


Mouth to Mouth is about how startlingly we affect each other’s lives, not by the things we say to each other, but by the things we keep ourselves from saying; it’s about how little we know about even those we are closest to, and about how impossible it is to clear away the debris that the unspoken leaves behind. An encounter with someone you love and think you know, after you see Elyot’s tantalizing play, and take into account your own reticence in that relationship, could conceivably upend every notion you had before. The primary virtue of the play, and of its odd structure, is that it makes you perceive things differently from moment to moment. Each of the play’s revelations is a shock to one’s conscience and, at the same time, a kind of epiphany the theater is always in search of but which is rarely achieved. This is a work that has in it the power to alter lives. That is not said lightly.


picture - Mouth to MouthSince it would spoil things to give away too much of what transpires in the course of the action, it should be noted that while this seems to add up to a brooding and solemn drama, it is also, in many unexpected ways, a deliciously funny comedy.  It is, in fact, a little tango of a play, superbly danced, a roundelay of relationships as light in its spirit as it is dark in the secrets these relationships withhold.  And it has been wonderfully well-served by its compassionate director, Mark Brokaw, and his excellent cast. David Cale, as a gay playwright with a serious eye problem, proves again how good he is at seeming to have walked into a play in progress; his sense of truth is so great, you may not even think he is acting. Lisa Emery, as his best friend and the mother of a young man he covets, is seen first as a woman so heavily traumatized that she has been rendered immobile, and later seen as she was before the trauma, a carefree spirit who dotes a little too much on her son; the contrast between “before” and “after” in Ms. Emery is made real and palpable, not merely theatrically eccentric. Christopher Abbott, as the son in question, is perfect, impossibly handsome and yet always as real and as simultaneously nervous and self-contained as any college student come home for the holidays. Darren Goldstein is sneakily convincing, a man you know has something hiding away in the cobwebs of his mind, but who may surprise you when it is ultimately revealed. Elizabeth Jasicki as his wife and Richard Topol as Ms. Emery’s husband, are also frighteningly authentic.   It is Andrew Polk, as Cale’s cocaine-snorting, gay doctor friend, who gets most of the laughs, and they are justly deserved, though, in fact, he is – and we do not know this as we experience him freshly – the character who actually addresses the play’s themes. “Forever alone,” he says, “that’s our lot, and try as we might, we can’t change it. We hitch up with someone, fool ourselves we’ve cracked it, give life to other desolate beings, but we’re still alone.” How, you may ask, can a character say that and still get laughs? First time around, Polk had me in stitches. What his performance might do on a second visit is anybody’s guess. That is the nature of this play.


And, as in all New Group productions, the design elements are very good indeed: Riccardo Hernandez’ set is fluid and suggestive (the curtains he uses to change scenes literally seem to move to musical rhythms), and the costumes by Michael Krass, the lighting by Mark McCullough, and, especially, the evocative and lyrical sound design by the estimable David Van Tieghem, add to what makes Kevin Elyot’s Mouth to Mouth such a memorable event; one that should be seen, I repeat, at least once.


harveyperr @


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