'Lips Together, Teeth Apart': Theater Review

Lips Together Teeth Apart Production Still - H 2014
Joan Marcus

Lips Together Teeth Apart Production Still - H 2014

A miscast ensemble fails to bring life to this AIDS-era play, which now has the feel of a period piece

America Ferrera of "Ugly Betty" stars with "Orange is the New Black" alums Michael Chernus and Tracee Chimo in this revival of Terrence McNally's 1991 comedy-drama

The synergy between playwrights and actors is well-demonstrated in the Second Stage Theatre revival of Terrence McNally's 1991 comedy-drama Lips Together, Teeth Apart, but not in a good way. McNally wrote the work especially for its original performers — Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski and Anthony Heald, with Swoosie Kurtz replacing an intended Kathy Bates — and that estimable ensemble knocked it out of the park. This current production features a talented cast including America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) and Tracee Chimo, who wowed in the recent off-Broadway hit Bad Jews. But they fail to live up to their illustrious predecessors, and as a result the play feels far thinner.

Set on the beachside deck of a house on Fire Island during the 1990 Fourth of July weekend, it concerns the gathering between two mismatched couples: Sam (Michael Chernus), the regular-guy owner of a construction company; his ethereal wife Sally (Ferrera), an amateur painter frustrated by her inability to capture the island's natural beauty on canvas; Sam's relentlessly perky sister Chloe (Chimo), forever changing clothes and launching into impromptu show tunes; and her husband John (Austin Lysy), the reserved head of admissions at a boy's prep school.

Despite the gaiety of the unseen gay neighbors on both sides, the specter of AIDS hangs heavily over the proceedings, with the house inherited from Sally's brother, who died of the disease. Although there's a glistening pool right on the wooden deck, none of the characters ventures in for fear of contracting the virus.

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There's some drama revolving around a lone swimmer whom Sally spots venturing deep into the ocean and failing to return, but not much happens during the course of the three-act play running over 2½ hours. There's plenty of turmoil in the air: an illicit affair between Sally and John, of which both their partners are aware; Sally's pregnancy, which she hasn't revealed to her husband who's insecure about becoming a parent; a serious illness afflicting one of the characters, and so on. Much of this is revealed in the form of stilted interior monologues, with Justin Townsend's lighting suitably shifting for each occasion.

Otherwise the trivial talk goes on and on, with Sally's inability to properly remember the titles of movies and their stars constituting one of the tired running gags. A fight breaks out between the two men, Sam gets a splinter in his foot and finds a snake underneath the house, and there's a disastrous game of charades. But the conflicts feel forced and the playwright's normally facile gift for comic banter (on prominent display in the current smash Broadway revival of It's Only a Play) feels strained.

So, too, does the atmosphere of death, from the possibly suicidal stranger to the relentless sound of the bug zapper doing its job.

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In the hands of the brilliant original performers, this all went down smoothly and entertainingly. But while Chimo scores consistent laughs as the ebullient Chloe, the rest of the ensemble are mostly unconvincing and generally too young for their roles. (Orange is the New Black fans will note that Chimo and Chernus switch here to playing brother and sister after appearing as a couple on the Netflix prison series.)

Director Peter DuBois' unfocused staging gives the evening the feel of a very long weekend indeed, although the physical production can't be faulted. Alexander Dodge's set design rendering the wood-decked house is so invitingly gorgeous it immediately induces real-estate envy, and the costumes by ESosa skillfully convey the characters' personality traits.

The title of the play refers to dental advice concerning nighttime teeth grinding, and it will come in handy here. By the time the sluggishly paced play reaches its conclusion, you're likely to have done a fair amount of teeth grinding yourself.

Cast: Michael Chernus, Tracee Chimo, America Ferrera, Austin Lysy
Director: Peter Dubois
Playwright: Terrence McNally
Set designer: Alexander Dodge
Costume designer: ESosa
Lighting designer: Justin Townsend
Sound designer: Fitz Patton
Presented by Second Stage Theatre