Lips Together, Teeth Apart Review: Looking at Terrence McNally’s AIDS-era play in three new ways

There are at least three ways in which anyone must view the remarkable livestreamed reading of Terrence McNally’s 30-year-old play on YouTube on April 6th (the video of which you can view below through this evening), starring Celia Keenan-Bolger, Jesse Ferguson, Ari Graynor and Zach Quinto as two straight couples spending the Fourth of July weekend in a Fire  Island beach house at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

Keenan-Bolger plays Sally, who inherited the house from David, her gay brother, who recently died of AIDS. The play, written and originally produced in 1991 ultimately explores the characters’ – and thus the era’s — fears of the epidemic, and its homophobia.

The reading is, first, an homage to the playwright, who died on March 24h at the age of 81. Before the play began, each of the cast members, the director Trip Cullman, and McNally’s husband Tom Kirdahy spoke of what the play, and the playwright meant to them. (“I miss him painfully,” his husband said.); then during the two intermissions, two of the original cast members, Nathan Lane and Christine Baranski, weighed in as well.

“Lips Together, Teeth Apart” is also a timely look at a past epidemic by a playwright who survived it and has just died from complications from the coronavirus. “It was transgressive,” the director notes, “to put a mirror up to the [mostly straight] audience and say ‘look at this crazy reaction you’re having to this health crisis.’”  It seems fitting that it was a benefit reading for Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS COVID 19 Emergency Relief Fund, a charity created in the one epidemic that is trying to help in the current one. If it’s hard for us at the moment to see our fears of COVID-19 as crazy,  reports of anti-Asian discrimination during the coronavirus crisis give added heft and relevance to the play.

It’s hard for anybody not to nod when Ari Graynor as Chloe says “I think these are terrible times to be a parent in,” and Sally responds: “I think these are terrible times to be anything in.”

But the reading was also an experiment in presenting live theater during a sweeping stay-at-home order – one of many experiments in online theaterover the past three weeks, and – in my view – so far one of the most successful in what I consider an emerging theatrical aesthetic, born out of necessity but reaching toward birth as a new genre.

Each of the four actors was, of course, quarantined in their own home, with their four faces appearing on screen like a do-it-yourself version of Hollywood Squares.  This was billed as a reading, so the stage directions were read aloud rather than acted out. This is most awkward when the two men are supposed to get into a physical altercation.

But, unlike most in-person readings, the actors had either memorized their lines or, more likely, were artfully reading them from a script or prompter off-camera at eye-level.  Without the distraction of their eyes always glancing down at their scripts – and without being able to notice how many pages of the script were left — the performances felt more fleshed-out and engrossing than at a typical reading. And the use of the screen helped offer a reasonable substitute for live staging — with just one performer filling the screen during soliloquies, suddenly split screen when a character enters.

Yes, there were ways it fell short of live theater during normal times. The play is full of funny lines but I felt silly laughing by myself. (For the first time I grasped the reason for the laugh-tracks for TV sitcoms, although they are a lame substitute for the real thing.) But unlike previous-era live theater on screen, there was an accompanying chat room off to the side (as well as  a running fundraising tally; by the play’s end, the contributions mostly of $5 and $10 added up to more than $6,000.)

Some of the comments:

​“There are at least 3 references to the musical Guys and Dolls. That was a wink to Nathan Lane who played Sam in the original production and was about to play the lead role in Guys and Dolls.”

“I’m in tears”

“beautiful, funny and unsettling.”

The reading was about a half hour shorter than the full stage production, but at a two hour running time (including two intermissions), it still is a test of the attention span of viewers who can easily leave their “seats” mid-scene to get something from the refrigerator – a test that it passed in my household. Having just read the script in a collection of McNally’s plays, I saw that the cuts were largely achieved by pruning lines of dialogue throughout the play  rather than cutting out whole sections. Some of the cut lines made the play less blunt; the men in the original were painted as casually racist.

This makes them seem more enlightened, and their misconceptions about and offhand antipathy towards the homosexuals around them subtle but devastating. Our first glimpse of this is Sam dismissing the next-door neighbors as “the boys from Ipanema”

There is a double irony that there are no gay characters actually on stage/screen (we hear just the couples’ side in several exchanges of pleasantries) and that the two straight men in the play are being portrayed by Jesse Ferguson and Zach Quinto, two out gay actors. But part of the strength of Lips Apart, Teeth Together, then and now, is that these characters  are not being held up for ridicule.  They may start off as comic portraits, but we soon became engaged in the lives, and the sorrows, the complications and conflicts of the four characters.  Sam Truman (Ferguson) the least sophisticated of the quartet, is a New Jersey contractor, who is not sure he wants children. The title of the play comes form the prescription a dentist has given Sam to stop him from grinding his teeth at night. But he denies that he grinds his teeth. And that serves as a metaphor for all the characters, one way or another grinding, and denying. Sally (Keenan-Bolger), Sam’s wife, whose effort to be a mother has resulted in numerous miscarriages, is pregnant once again; she is both the emotional and moral center of the play, and Keenan-Bolger takes it on beautifully.  Chloe Haddock (Graynor), is an endless chatterbox, and Sam’s sister.  John (Quinto),  a prep-school administrator married to Chloe, who seems to be a jerk – he keeps on reading his newspaper when people speak to him, he treats his wife dismissively, and, we soon learn, he had an affair with Sally.  He is also terminally ill.  “With or without cancer, I’m still the same person,” he says, matter-of-factly.  That self-awareness is one of the character’s – and Terrence McNally’s — unsentimental insights that help make “Lips Apart, Teeth Together” still effective and affecting three decades later, even when both actors and audience must be apart, together.


Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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