SU Drama’s ‘Lips Together, Teeth Apart’ struggles to transcend the aging AIDS crisis
Bereft of strong character interaction, this student production has difficulty making the political climate of the ’80s and ’90s seem relevant today
Lips Together, Teeth Apart, which takes place at the height of the AIDS crisis, follows a pair of siblings (Sam and Chloe) and their respective spouses (Sally and John) as they spend a weekend together at a beach house Sally has recently inherited from her deceased brother, David.
The exclusive (and overwhelmingly gay) beach resort community of Fire Island provides the backdrop for the play’s window into the lives and psyches of the two couples on vacation. In classic Chekhovian style, the limited action in the play is largely beside the point: The real concern here is the emotional interiority of the four characters.
Scenic designer Katie Tulin’s set, a beach house with multiple levels and barriers intended to physically isolate the characters, makes full use of the stage to externalize the internal isolation of each character on an emotional level, as well.
At the front of the stage to the far right stands the reserved and emotionally unavailable Sally (Natalie Oliver), whom we see painting the landscape. One level up on the left we see Sally’s husband Sam (Max Adoff) checking the chlorine level in the pool. Sam’s imposing physical presence belies the emotional insecurity and class angst that renders him virtually crippled with self-conscious anxiety. Seated at another level, higher and off to the far right, is Sam’s brother-in-law John (Carl Fisk) — using the New York Times crossword puzzle and an aloof and condescending manner to shield himself from the surrounding world.
Rounding out the quartet of characters is Sam’s effervescent sister, Chloe (Bryn Dolan), whom we see in the kitchen at the far back of the stage. A sliding glass door isolates Chloe from the rest of the characters, while her non-stop inane chatter provides a patina of social interaction ensuring that no meaningful communication will ever take place on this particular vacation.
Over the course of a single (Fourth of July) holiday, Lips Together, Teeth Apart takes the audience through a series of monologues and innocuous conversations that provides them with a revealing context in which to gauge the characters and their interactions. Sally has just lost her brother to AIDS and grieves for him while dealing with her own homophobic impulses that make it difficult for her to fully appreciate the loss.
Indeed, in one way or another the specter of death hangs over all the characters. Beyond the loss of her brother, Sally has suffered multiple miscarriages and fears for the well being of the child she is (secretly) carrying. Her brother-in-law John, consumed by the cancer growing inside his body, is incapable of opening up about it or seeking support. Chloe, his wife, struggles not only with her husband’s illness but also her knowledge of his affair with Sally. Sam, too, knows of the affair — and it exacerbates his own sense of inferiority and worry that his marriage is falling apart.
Over the course of this one day, the sum of these fears and insecurities are elided through a focus on decidedly more prosaic issues of the day — such as drinks, crossword puzzles, titles of movies and songs, the economy, or the beauty of the pool.
Much more than a mere prop for conversation, the pool serves a much deeper (no pun intended) purpose: It references the larger context of the AIDS crisis, particularly the main characters’ pathological fear of the deadly disease and the local gay community with which they connect it. Much like the bug-zapper that hangs ominously from the back of the set, the pool is a constant reminder of each character’s mortality. Though conversation often focuses on the pool, the characters come up with increasingly unrealistic reasons as to why they wish to avoid using it. It soon becomes clear that this apprehension is based on an irrational fear of contracting the disease by swimming in a pool that had likely been used by those inflicted with the disease.
The historical context of the AIDS crisis and the reaction it spawned, particularly within “straight” communities, gives the play its larger political purpose. At the same time, it makes it feel somewhat dated and lacking in modern-day relevance. For example, the knee-jerk homophobia and discomfort the characters display toward their gay neighbors comes off differently now than it might have in 1991. The casual homophobia we see here makes it difficult to see these characters as sympathetic. Moreover, their calculating discussion examining how to exclude David’s lover from inheriting the beach house renders these characters near-monstrous. Back in 1991, these actions — while distasteful — were hardly remarkable.
One of the strengths of the play is the way in which it portrays these unremarkable positions as patently cruel and dehumanizing. In the current political climate, where the “revolutionary” concept of granting full humanity to homosexuals no longer seems quite so revolutionary, many of these connections seem almost banal, and gratefully so. Without the grand backdrop of the personal and political drama that defined the AIDS crisis of the ’80s and ’90s, the play offers little more in the way of drama than the plight of four unlikable characters trapped within emotional prisons of their own making.
There are brief moments when the characters recognize the walls of their prisons. Many of these are connected to the gay community that exists just beyond the fringes of the set.
Here is a community that manages to continue to live and love despite the AIDS epidemic and the deaths of so many of its members. For example, we occasionally can hear the jovial sounds from the parties in neighboring houses. The four characters complain about this noise, though they remain fascinated with the joie de vivre that apparently exists outside their own spheres of existence.
During the fireworks celebration at the end of the play, neighbors toss the two couples toy flags to wave in celebration of the festive holiday. But our characters are so uncomfortable in their own skin they remain incapable of surrendering to the moment. Just like that, the potential to move beyond their prison walls and embrace the community of their neighbors, and each other, has been lost. This is the tragedy of the play.
Though the actors had difficulty relating to one-another as a unified ensemble, Adoff and Dolan displayed real chemistry as siblings Sam and Chloe. Their characters’ shared history and close comfort with each other stands in marked contrast to the relationships with their respective spouses. The dance they share stands out as a rare moment of human connection in an otherwise sterile evening.
The monologues, in particular, proved to be a problem for the actors. These are the mediums by which the audience gains unfettered access to the emotional interiority of each character, lending heft to the seemingly insignificant moments that connect the play. But these are also difficult pieces that need to strike a near-perfect tone to avoid sounding confessional and forced. This play requires great nuance in presenting the fears and emotional isolation felt my middle-aged adults as they begin to view their own mortality and question their lives. The young actors here, all sophomores, struggled trying to achieve this delicate balance.
One notable exception is Adoff, whose handling of Sam’s monologue about love and closeness hit all the right notes. Adoff was convincing in projecting his character’s insecurities and apprehension that his marriage is dissolving — leading to a dissociation from his lived experience. He adroitly navigates Sam’s stages of confusion, anger and pain as he tries to come to grips with his desire to love and be loved.
The production’s faults notwithstanding, SU Drama’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart provides a compelling snapshot into an importatnt historical moment in the evolution of LGBT acceptance in America.
I would encourage younger views to prepare for this play by first researching the history of the AIDS crisis in America in the ’80s and ’90s. This context will not only provide viewers with the knowledge necessary to follow the subtext of the play, but it will also allow the play move beyond the claustrophobic experience of its navel-gazing, unsympathetic characters.
What: Lips Together, Teeth Apart, by Terrance McNally
Who: Syracuse Drama Department, directed by Geraldine Clark
Where: Storch Theater/SU Drama Theater Complex, 820 E. Genesee Street, Syracuse
Performance reviewed: Feb. 21, 2015 (opening night)
Remaining performances: Plays through Mar. 1
Length: About 2 hours and 50 minutes, including two 10-minute intermissions
Tickets: $19 general admission ($17 seniors 65+ and full-time students)
Call: 315-443-3275 or vpa.syr.edu/drama
Family guide: Adult language, adult humor, sexuality