Off-Broadway Review: “Small Mouth Sounds” at Ars Nova at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre

Off-Broadway Review: “Small Mouth Sounds” at Ars Nova at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre (Through September 25, 2016)
By Beth Wohl
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Reviewed by Michele Willens
Theatre Reviews Limited

When a play is about something more than boy meets girl or boy meets boy, (or boy becomes girl) it can be an inspiring, even cathartic experience. This week, for example, I saw a show that is theoretically about suffering, but it is funny and touching and relatable. Oh, did I mention that it is also about not talking?

I still recall when my pal Susan said she wanted me to meet her wonderful new friend. I asked where they’d met and she said, straight faced, “at a silent retreat.” Well, now that I have seen “Small Mouth Sounds,” written by Beth Wohl, and playing at the Signature Pershing Sq. complex, I kind of get how that might be possible. The play follows six characters over a few days as they get instructions, follow a manual, but are otherwise left to fend for themselves. In silence.

This is an interesting and enjoyable production in an appropriately intimate venue. (It previously enjoyed a successful run at Ars Nova, the ‘new work incubator’ from which it emerged) The audience sits on two sides of a stage and a long, bare wood floor, so it feels as if we are out in those rural lakeside woods with the ‘hush-hush-ers.’ The performers begin and end on stage, but otherwise roam up and down before us. They are all seemingly in some kind of pain, (lost child, bad marriages, illness and so on) though because they don’t speak, much of this we are left to surmise. The actors are all so good that it is relatively easy to do so. The rather perfect cast includes Max Baker, Babak Tafti, Brad Heberlee, Marcia DeBonis, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, and Zoe Winters.

With one key exception–a funny and sad monologue by Heberlee at what is supposedly a Q and A night–the only spoken words come via the invisible leader of the retreat. Voiced by Jojo Gonzalez, he is unintentionally hilarious. “Perhaps the key to enlightenment,” he suggests in between hacks, “is cough medicine.” At another moment, his word of advice to the fragile group is “CHANGE!” We watch these six individuals sort of get to know one another: flirting and then some in the case of one man and woman; a lesbian couple bickering and mending; the most touching character sharing a secret with another through a photograph.

There is a surprising amount of humor, sparked by the smallest actions and expressions, and plenty of tears. (Theirs not ours) It’s amazing when you are spending almost two hours in virtual silence, how sound effects like a sneeze, the opening of a bag of goldfish, or leaves blowing in the rain can sound like a bomb exploding. The noise is from the action on stage, by the way, not from the closely listening audience.

The squeamish should be warned that “Small Mouth Sounds” has frontal nudity, though it is harmless, in character, and almost charming. The play, nicely directed by Rachel Chavkin, is a bit too long and seems to spend the last fifteen minutes in search of an ending. The bottom line turns out to be not much more than “you are not alone.” Still, the pivotal issue is feeling disconnected in these strange and fast times. And who doesn’t?

Words can be very powerful, of course. So, it turns out, can finding other ways to say something.