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A CurtainUp Review
Small Mouth Sounds

Think of this retreat as a vacation from your habits. Your routines. is the best kind. Of vacation. Because after this. You don't ever have to go back. To who you were. — The never seen, wisdom spouting Teacher at the spirititual retreat setting of Small Mouth Sounds.
L-R: Max Baker, Babak Tafti, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Marcia DeBonis, and Zoe Winters. (photo by Ben Arons).
The idea of a vacation in a spartan woodsy setting in total silence with a group of strangers doesn't particularly appeal to me. But it did to playwright Bess Wohl, who turned her week at such a retreat into Small Mouth Sounds, a play that affords me and others a chance to experience such an outing vicariously.

The current run at the Pershing Square Signature Center's Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre (Note: This is NOT a Signature production!) is actually a reprise of its premiere at the intimate off-off-Broadway Ars Nova Theater on West 54th Street — no doubt prompted by the enthusiastic response by those who saw it there. While there are some cast and design team changes, Miss Wohl's clever conceit and Rachel Chavkin's inventive and smartly focused direction are in place.

The plot, if you can call it that, takes us from the arrival to departure of six people at an unnamed campus of a self-actualization campus in a bucolic setting. They've signed up for a course with a famous teacher-author geared around a search for enlightenment by means of lectures, very basic accommodations, meditation and silence.

That requirement for silence is quite a challenge for the actors since they must convey enough of their back stories to clue us about their need for spiritual guidance. The nature of the text obviously also limits my options for choosing a quote to introduce this review to something from the unseen Teacher's use of stories and platitudes.

Fortunately, under Ms. Chavkin inspired helmsmanship, it all works. The guru (it's JoJo Gonzales) manages to point a gently satirical finger at this type of feel good industry. And the ensemble succeeds impressively in giving us a full sense of their characters' personalities, miseries and hopes and help us to assess the likelihood of this "vacation" from their habits leaving them truly renewed.

Set designer Laura Jellinek has reconfigured the theater to put the audience on either side of a long runway-like stage, with a set of steps at both ends and in the middle for the actors to move in and out of different locations — from a platform at the long end where the group assembles for input from the unseen Guru . . .to the main and larger playing area where we see the nirvana seekers' night time quarters (no props except for the mats and paraphernalia brought by the "students" to the spaces carved out by lighting designer Mike Inwood) as well as their daytime activities alongside the lake.

The reliance on body language, facial expressions and non-verbal communication between total strangers and the disembodied voice of the Teacher may sound like a somewhat over-the-top reach for laughs. And so it is. But as Charlie Chaplin straddled comic physicality with often quite emotional characterizations, so do these actors.

While Ms. Wohl included detailed profiles of the characters' backgrounds at the beginning of her script, she did so mainly to help the actors with their interpretations. For the audience, their individually must — and does — emerge through the performances. This happens with the very first scene which assembles the group one-by-one for the orientation about the rules of the week they've signed on for (paid in advance, and without refunds).

I suppose in the interest of immersing you right in with what's happening on stage (the middle of the stage steps are also where the audience enters and exits), programs identify the actor playing the teacher and the names of the characters and the actors playing them are not handed out until you leave. Therefore, in order to give these actors their well-deserved due, I'll be cheating a bit in what follow.

Already seated on that high riser platform is a middle-aged man (his name is Jan and the actor portraying him is Max Baker) who seems shy and childlike, and silent even before the no-talk rule is announced. Next to arrive is a very different type, a gorgeous specimen of well-toned manliness who ignores the seats set up for the group, but assumes front and center perfect yoga position (His name is Rodney and he's played with show-offy, self-absorption by Babak Tafki).

Two of the three women, Judy and Joan, arrive together. They're obviously a long-time loving couple and a case of opposites attract. The arrival of Ned (Brad Heberlee) sets up a roommates from hell scenario as it turns out the not especially attractive or athletic Ned is paired with the gorgeous Rodney.

The comic tone of that opening scene reaches a caricature-like crescendo with the arrival of Alicia (a very funny Zoe Winters). This ditzy blonde latecomer is weighed down by too many layers of clothes and possessions. All the stuff she's shlepping includes contraband food and a smart phone, making her the least likely candidate for not fitting in with the retreat's regime. While Alicia is not happy to find herself assigned to a male roommate she and the childlike, and most comfortable with his silence Jan, represent some of the play's sweetest interactions.

Andrew Schneider's video projections of the natural environment framing the top of the set, punctuated by Stowe Nelson's soundscape. Tilly Grimes' costumes add to the pleasures of this production.

Moving this production from a small off-the beaten path locale to a larger, more high profile location probably accounts for Wohl's striking originality at times feeling a bit gimmicky. I also found The playwright's departure from the overall non-verbal presentation via a long monologue by Ned and in a briefer interchange between Judy and Joan, a bit of a cheat. That said, it does clarify and help to deepen the more poignant aspects of what brings people like these to programs like this. And, thanks to Bess Wohl's vivid voice and the way the actors make silence as dramatically potent as dialogue, Small Mouth Sounds is a truly unique and entertaining experimental theater experience.

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Small Mouth Sounds
Written by Bess Wohl
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Cast (In order of appearance): Max Baker (Jan), Babak Tafti (Rodney), Brad Heberlee (Ned), Marcia DeBonis (Joan), Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Judy), Jojo Gonzalez (Teacher), Zoe Winters (Alicia)
Scenic Design: Laura Jellinek
Costume Design: Tilly Grimes
Lighting Design: Mike Inwood
Sound Design:Stowe Nelson
Video Design: Andrew Schneider
Props: Noah Mease
Stage Manager: James Steele
Running Time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center 480 West 42nd Street
From 7/03/16; opening 7/13/16; closing 10/09/16.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at July 12th press preview
Note: This is NOT a Signature Theater production.

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