A Outstanding Production of Terrence McNally's "Lip Together, Teeth Apart"

The New Conservatory Theatre Center is presenting a terrific production of Terrence McNally’s 1991 dark comedy “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” enhanced by a splendid cast of four characters and sharp direction by Dennis Lickteig. This marks the third time I have seen this play since it opened in New York in 1991 with Nathan Lane.  The second time was in Los Angeles in 1993 with Nathan Lane repeating the role of Sam.

“Lips Together, Teeth Apart” takes place on Fire Island during the dawn of the age of AIDS, where a hum of apocalyptic gaiety hangs overhead like a mist.  In the midst of a community of gay men is a heterosexual island with unseen gay men on each side of te superb beach front set by Kuo-Hao Lo. The brother of Sally Truman has died of AIDS, leaving his beachside home to her.  Sally (Marie O’Donnell) arrives on the Fourth of July weekend to inspect the property with her husband, Sam(Michael Sally) along with his sister Chloe Haddock (Sarah Mitchell) and her husband John.(Cameron Weston)  As the weekend unfolds, the couples explore and in part resolves their relationships.

Speaking of odd couples these are the epitome of the term.  John is a reserved New England preppy who believes he is intellectually superior to the group.  His wife Chloe who does community theatre acting chatters nonstop sometimes spouting fractured French. Sam and Sally is even a stranger pair.  He is a gruff unsophisticated, beer drinking owner homophobic of a New Jersey construction company.  Sally is the exact opposite since she has a wraithlike, delicate presence about her. She loves to paint landscapes but she struggles over her incapability to capture the essence of the universe in her paintings. 

The four persons have secrets, which they reveal to the audience in freezes as the lights dimmed and a lone spot light appears on them.  Dennis Lickteig commends these effects with excellent lighting on the part of Christian Mejia with great seriousness which could have been silly.

“Lips Together, Teeth Apart” is like a time capsule of the not too distance past where AIDS was prevalent where the audience watches these four characters struggle with what to say to each other and how to deal with the limited time they have left with each other over the fourth of July weekend.  Unseen gay men dance and play opera music and disco on each of them and men disappear like the unseen naked swimmer who Sally sees dive into the ocean in the early morning sun and never return in this life.

Dennis Lickteig direction and cast hits all of the shifts in tonality since it an extremely difficult task to say one thing to a character while meaning another and then instantly jump into an aside revealing some dreadful personal flaw to the audience and then snap into the scene.

The showiest, most comic character is the impetuous Chloe played wonderfully by Sarah Mitchell. She talks non-stop while she passes out an endless series of drinks, hors d’oeuvres and unwelcome advice.   She has a great sense of timing and she finds every ounce of humor in the playwright’s sparking dialogue.

Marie O’Donnell (she won a 2010 BATCC Award for “Anita Bryant Died for Our Sins’) who is an actor of considerable range brings her character to life and her breakdown late in the play making her character’s shrillness understandable.  Cameron Weston nails John’s arrogance however when he faces the audience in those freeze moments he shows the sympathetic side of the character.  His confrontations with Michael Sally as Sam are outstanding.

 Michael Sally gives a splendid performance as the ingenuous neurotic contractor Sam.  His take on watching and listening to the unseen gay men on their property shows homophobic nature of this “macho” man. He successfully shows this side as if he is watching exotic zoo animals and has no trouble muttering “fruits” and “faggots” to the rest of the group.  He even shows the anti-negro side of him when Sally is describing his brother’s lover who helps him during the last days of his life and Sam says “did you know (the lover” was black?”)

Adding to the sense of emotional claustrophobia is the handsome set by Kuo-Hao Lo and under the direction of Dennis Lickteig, the actors frequently walk to the edges of the set and stage, as if to accentuate the sense of being hemmed in by their gay neighbors whose unseen decks are on each side of the stage. The set designer has created the exterior of an authentically weathered northern beach house and the beginnings of a swimming pool thanks to the lighting of Christian Mejia who also provides a Fourth of July fireworks display by inventive lighting.  Stephen Abtis sound design and Jorge Hernandez costumes add to the great look of this impressive production.

“Lips Together, Teeth Apart” runs through July 1st at the Decker Theatre, New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave at Market Street, San Francisco.  For tickets call 415-861-8972 or online at www.nctcsf.org