There are always ghosts in the theater. They are the fears we cannot face, the company we cannot keep. They are the lies we decide to believe in order to survive.
Of course, they are also our pathways to truth. This magic is on display at the New Phoenix Theatre right now, in their captivating production of Terrence McNally’s “Lips Together, Teeth Apart.” The play is a welcome departure from McNally’s usual LGBT-themed dramedy. Unlike his other commentaries of gay social living, this feels spiritual and abstract. Characters frequently transition from dialogue to internal monologue as their scene partners pause for consideration. Sometimes it’s not clear what’s real and what’s imagined. This running log of internalized fears and paranoias focuses our attention on what’s not immediately visible but emotionally felt. It’s the kind of play that reminds you that you’re not crazy.
We open on a comfortable seaside deck on Fire Island. It’s 1992 and men are dying of AIDS left and right without much explanation or defense. Fear was like water, and nobody could swim. One victim’s sister, and her husband, have taken custody of his house with restraint, and are spending the Fourth of July weekend there with her sister- and brother-in-law. Everyone’s in disarray and no one will address it. This is not a play about AIDS, but its crippling aftershocks of isolation, loneliness and anger. Ghostly personas ravish these characters and force them into all kinds of hiding and betrayal. It’s all they can do but to drown.
This cast does laps around Paul Bostaph’s impeccable set, though. Director Greg Natale and and all-star lineup of actors and designers, have created the most fully realized rendition of a play I have seen in years. Everybody involved is working at their very best, and then some. Natale’s pacing of overlapping dialogue is a choreography of organic timing and natural rhythm. Chris Cavanagh’s lighting, especially his evening scenography, is photorealistic. These technical considerations remind us that everything is character and details go noticed.
Kelli Bocock-Natale and Richard Lambert give illuminating performances that renew our expectations of them. These are consummate professionals working at a breakneck speed, especially Bocock-Natale whose character never shuts up; Lambert listens and reacts in real time, the way we do in real life. The consistent Eric Rawski and committed Candice Kogut pull the best rabbits out of their hats, as well. All are incredible for a number of specific reasons you’ll have to discover for yourself.
Aside from an over-wrought and lingering third act (there are two intermissions, one too many) McNally’s script is air-tight. Natale’s production is virtually flawless. And between these two forces, the ghosts are happily at play.
“Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” by Terrence McNally
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Drama presented by New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, 95 Johnson Park, running Thursday through Saturday until Oct. 8. Tickets are $20-$30. Info: newphoenixtheatre.org or 853-1334