Desperate laughs

The author of more than 30 plays, recipient of three Tony Awards and a U-Haulful of dramatic accolades, and the next likely Pulitzer Prize winner, playwright Terrence McNally possesses a keener ear for dialogue than any other celebrated American dramatist now alive. The language he creates is a pure theatrical invention, not some naturalistic facsimile of our everyday conversations. It's common in a McNally play for one beautiful, possibly obscure word to stick in the craw of his people and be tossed back and forth like a Ping-Pong ball--for no other reason, you sometimes suspect, than to enjoy the sound of that word through constant repetition.

As might be imagined of a writer who revels in language, his plays are usually devoid of action. The characters he creates--displaced individuals who struggle throughout the play's duration to keep a grip on some lovely, fragile ideal--more often than not orbit around their own obsessions and only interact with the other characters when those obsessions collide. McNally makes frequent use of asides and soliloquies, shows little interest in creating obstacles for his performers unless they somehow reflect the conflicts that are already going on inside, and often (deliberately) ends his plays with the sense that, although these characters have traveled a wide spiritual distance during the course of the play, they arrive at the same point where they started. These aren't criticisms, per se, only warnings to potential ticket buyers about the nature of McNally's talky plays.

McNally's best works could be performed as staged readings and suffer little for the reduction. Though his people could hardly be generalized as intellectuals, they're thinkers, not doers, and often weighed down to the planet with their own comic, cerebral plights. "My mind is a collision course of random thoughts," says one sad McNally clown, and the talk that results is a beautiful cacophony of white-noise chaos.

A Terrence McNally production can be hobbled by a clueless director, cheap sets, inappropriate musical selections (McNally lives, breathes, and eats opera and classical; investigate his hysterical confession, The Lisbon Traviata) and still emerge a champ--if the actors are nimble enough to traverse the emotional minefields McNally lays for them.

Luckily, director Jerry Covault is sensitive to the material, sound designer Jerry Russell works small miracles with a tapestry of musical moods, and best of all, the actors are stupendous in Stage West's production of Lips Together, Teeth Apart, McNally's torchy glimpse of a Fourth of July in the lives of two married couples approaching middle age punch-drunk from the marital battles they've endured.

Friends Sally and Sam Truman (Rhea Anne Cook and Terry Martin) and Chloe and John Haddock (Erin McGrann and Tyrees Allen) are vacationing together at the Fire Island beachfront property owned by Sally, who inherited it from her late brother, a gay man dead from AIDS.

It's clear as the play opens that even a little leisure time together is too much for this volatile foursome, whose marital woes have seeped outside the wedding ring and stained their friendships. Cocky, insecure Sam, a construction company owner, is so jealous of arrogant, BMW-driving John, a prep-school admissions director, he can hardly stand it. The relentlessly cheerful Chloe feels like a dithery hausfrau compared to Sally, a serenely talented painter whose multiple attempts at pregnancy have continually resulted in death inside the womb. She also can't quite find joy in the group's Fourth of July frivolity because little signs of her late brother and his orientation keep popping up. The loud parties being conducted by scantily clad boys on either side of the house don't help frazzled nerves, either.

Lips Together, Teeth Apart bears some resemblance to last year's McNally Tony winner for best play, Love! Valour! Compassion!, which presented gay male baby boomers learning to walk again during difficult periods of their lives. But the sympathy and hope the playwright doles out in generous spoonfuls to those wounded souls is withheld from these heterosexuals except for the occasional teasing taste. While filled with fireworks of humor, Lips Together, Teeth Apart is a considerably bleaker look at people struggling to adapt inside the traps they've set for themselves. Indeed, this script more closely resembles Mart Crowley's legendary The Boys in the Band, another acid tale of friends gathered together on a holiday (in that case, the principal's birthday) only to discover the much-ballyhooed "lifestyles" they've chosen have left them soul-starved.

Terrence McNally is famous for his boundless benevolence as a man and a writer, so while it seems unlikely Lips Together, Teeth Apart is a conscious act of revenge on decades of scripts that portrayed hopeless homosexuals, you really have to wonder. The all-male, all-gay Fire Island neighbors who are always heard but never seen provide a constant source of commentary for Chloe, Sam, John, and Sally, all of whom confess, at one time or another during the three acts, that they are puzzled at best and repulsed at worst by the concept of homosexuality. McNally the gay playwright provides invisible gay men as scapegoats for these four married people who can always console themselves as they spiral into the gutter that they are, at least, "normal."

And yet, they are all pretty much failures at maintaining "the heterosexual lifestyle." John's compulsion to control his wife reflects his own bottomless need for vengeance against the disappointments of his life; Chloe's manic housewifery is a tenuous lid on some monstrous fears of abandonment; Sam rejects the awesome responsibilities of fatherhood because they might reveal him as the bellicose cipher he truly is; and Sally's inability to bear children haunts her with the specter of premature death, echoed in the AIDS-related demise of her beloved brother.

Compared to the gentle poignancy of his other plays, Lips Together, Teeth Apart is Terrence McNally sucking on a sourball, his playwright's mouth screwed into contortions at the bitter taste of hypocrisy employed as a salve for desperate lives. Self-deception, no matter how socially sanctioned, doesn't make the medicine of life's cruel lessons go down any easier. That America has nurtured a playwright who can relay this vital news through rich, poetic, incisive language offers a unique gift to us all--an eloquent two-part harmony of the beauty and the beast in adulthood.

Lips Together, Teeth Apart runs through August 17 at Fort Worth's Stage West. Call (817) 924-9454.

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Jimmy Fowler

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