It's the things that aren't said that cripple most relationships, as the characters in Terrence McNally's Lips Together, Teeth Apartknow too well. Two married couples are gathered at a beach house on Fire Island on the Fourth of July. They're four straight people on an island of gay. Sally (Cheryl Pellerin), whose brother David has recently died of AIDS, has inherited his beach house. She's here for the weekend with her husband, Sam (Jack Millis); his sister, Chloe (Aileen-Marie Scott); and Chloe's husband, John (James Knudsen).
The occasion is less a memorial for David than a test of spouses, friends and siblings. Amid the sniping and casual banter, deep secrets and suspicions emerge.
It's too bad, however, that these characters were hatched from McNally's mostly unimaginative mind. His triteness is all over Lips Together, Teeth Apart.The bland dialogue, bland characters and bland ideas don't so much turn the stomach as induce catatonia. His hamfisted attempts to play with convention end up making you think convention wasn't so bad—as when he uses direct addresses to the audience that wind up stalling what little momentum the play generates. His anti-hetero bias is as subtle as a gay-pride parade: whenever the four straights refer to David's gay neighbors, they invariably use the word "them." And McNally can't decide when to end this hydra-like play: every time you think, with relief, it's over, another heavy-handed plot twists reveals itself.
It's a wonder, then, that this production directed by Kristina Leach is as enjoyable as it is. Leach is one of the most versatile theater folk in the county—she acts, directs and writes (her play Grasmere has won all kinds of awards and is receiving a production at New York's Cherry Lane Theatre in June). She does wonders with McNally's meager material. From the way she places her actors onstage—most of the time, they stand or sit apart from the other characters, suggesting their deep emotional isolation—to the subtle way she guides her cast toward moments of genuine emotional sincerity, she almost manages to turn this pig's ear into something entirely different.
In fact, the most stirring moment of this production came before the play started. In her director's notes, Leach comments on the incomplete set, which is the façade of a house. The unfinished house is an obvious metaphor, seemingly pretty on the outside but empty on the inside. It's a reminder, Leach says, that in all relationships, there is more going on than meets the eye.
"As you watch the performance, remember that we are all involved in some way or another with people we may never truly know, that the framing of any relationship can be tenuous at best," she writes. "And at the very least, we may know some partially, love them entirely, and never fully understand absence until they are gone."
If only McNally's script offered the insight of Leach's director notes.
Lips Together, Teeth Apart at the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa, (949) 650-5269; www.costamesaplayhouse.org. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through April 27. $12-$15.