Small Mouth Sounds Director Says the Silent Comedy Has a Lot to Say

Six strangers take a vow of silence on a retreat in the woods in Bess Wohl's off-Broadway play Small Mouth Sounds .
Ben Arons
Six strangers take a vow of silence on a retreat in the woods in Bess Wohl's off-Broadway play Small Mouth Sounds .
No one in the play Small Mouth Sounds, the off-Broadway comedy about six runaway strangers on a silent nature retreat, says any words to each other or to the audience.

Director Rachel Chavkin says that even though writer Bess Wohl's play presented some challenges as a production — every movement and moment had to be just right — the lack of dialogue also makes it easier for the audience to connect to the performers and their characters. Words would just get in the way.

"There's sort of nowhere to hide," Chavkin says.

Small Mouth Sounds opens its run at the Wyly Theatre on Wednesday, Jan. 31, as part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Off Broadway on Flora play series.

"There's sort of nowhere to hide." — Rachel Chavkin, director, Small Mouth Sounds

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Chavkin has helmed several critically acclaimed plays in the New York theater scene, including lyricist Dave Malloy's musical Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1982, as well as Heather Christian and Sarah Gancher's economic love story, Mission Draft, for her Brooklyn-based theater ensemble The Team.

She first learned about Wohl's Small Mouth Sounds after meeting with the playwright at the request of the Ars Nova Productions, where Wohl craft the script. Chavkin describes Wohl's script as a unique idea for a live stage production.

"The play is highly, highly unusual," Chavkin says. "I have never seen a play that functions quite like Small Mouth Sounds. I don't read that many screenplays, but it reads like the way a screenplay would function, and I'm very interested in the format and stylistic challenges."

Chavkin says the play explores deep themes about human relationships and the idea of happiness while being funny at the same time.

"The play made me laugh out loud," Chavkin says. "The play has this incredible pathos about the self-improvement industry, and I loved the way the play complicated things that people take for granted, like how we should be happy and how we have a right to happiness and those ideas that we're told amidst all of the suffering going on in the world."

Silence also has a great power over an audience and can focus the audience's attention more effectively than the wittiest dialogue.

"I would say that the biggest challenge was the need for radical honesty from the performers and getting the actors to understand that they could trust silence and that it's wildly compelling to watch someone really think," Chavkin says. "I think very often, a performer has the temptation to be entertaining, and finding actors who understand they could be thoroughly simple and ... let the audience see them in their pain."

Chavkin says the play's biggest accomplishment is that it gives audiences the chance to examine the characters — and themselves.

"I feel like we succeeded in finding this balance in humor and sorrow and human agony," she says. "I feel good in the sense that the actors really rigorously grounded themselves in the basic honesty of pain and trust, that there is this deep well of humor that lies there and that we hopefully recognize each other in these characters."

Small Mouth Sounds, Wednesday, Jan. 31, through Sunday, Feb. 4, Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St., $29 and up,