There are two new comedies onstage in Boston right now, both entertaining, and well-executed by superb casts, but it was the scripts that gave me pause.
The New England premiere of SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company was a hit off-broadway and absolutely made me laugh– and that’s about it. What we have here are Six Characters in Search of a Guru, but they are firmly in the grip of author Bess Wohl as they begin a silent woodland retreat. As you might imagine, there is little dialogue, and few props; we come to know these characters through their movements, what they wear, their reactions to each other, and their nonverbal cues and expressions as they make their way through this mystical odyssey.
We know them first by the way they enter, and this accomplished ensemble enters fully formed: there’s Barlow Adamson already seated and in place as the lights go up; he will prove an adroit physical comedian and the biggest surprise. Nael Nacer is ardent and earnest; Kerry A. Dowling and Celeste Oliva arrive in tandem and are respectively rarin’ to go and rather sardonic; Sam Simahk and his sculpted limbs effortlessly assume the lotus position, while the girlish Gigi Watson arrives tardy, discombobulated, and potentially open to new positions with the hunky Sam.
These characters are mostly seen and not heard save for one: The Teacher– who never shuts up. Marianna Bassham’s booming disembodied voice is as spiritual as a carnival barker’s selling snake oil. She sounds so transparently pompous and phony that I couldn’t figure out why any of them would listen to her. Perhaps if she’d played it more subtly, growing gradually unhinged over time, I might have bought it. As it was, this performance threw the entire play out of whack for me.
I certainly laughed at the absurdity of The Teacher’s vacuous pronouncements, her taking cell phone calls or blowing her nose in the middle of her followers’ spiritual epiphanies, her less than zen irritation at their not following directions. But what are we to understand– that no one is a guru? We are all gurus? Change is futile? Tell me something I don’t know. I’ve been on silent retreats and little here, beyond the variety of types who show up at these things, rang true.
As their less than earth-shattering stories were revealed, these characters– except for one– grew less interesting. What held me was the silence, the ingenuity of the actors, and having to lean into their visual cues lest I miss something. (The audience is positioned on three sides, and I advise you NOT to sit in the center section directly in front of the action–it’s hard to see downstage.)
At the last moment, when the final word was uttered, I wished the play had plunged me into the metaphysical depths indicated, but instead, I found myself wading through a nothing more than a somewhat diverting birdbath. Oh well.
A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2 a comedy now having its Boston debut over at the Huntington Theatre and co-produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre offered much more to think about, especially now. Written by Tony Award nominee Lucas Hnath as a sequel to Ibsen’s classic, A DOLL’S HOUSE PART 2 has very little to do with Part 1, but does provide a catchy premise for cogitation on modern women, men, gender roles, and marriage.
Again, a practically bare stage and one significant portal make up the set. Nora walks back through the door she slammed 15 years ago and into a riotous, relevant 21st century rumination on the ruins of the marriage she left behind. It’s a fleet and funny 90 minutes as Nora tries to persuade Torvald to finally sign the divorce papers. The costumes are two centuries ago, but the language is contemporary, which catapults us into the battle of the sexes here and now, and we find ourselves judging our own marriages, partners, and each character onstage as their arguments unfold.
Nancy E. Carroll– queen of the deadpan– crosses the stage as Anne Marie to answer the portentous knock at the door; she’s the servant left behind to raise Nora’s children after she abandoned them, and holds Nora accountable. John Judd plays a vulnerable Torvald, a softer, more self-aware man than Ibsen’s creation, someone who actually says that Nora never really saw him– how insightful! Nora’s grown-up daughter Emmy is played with equal parts self-possession and rage by Nikki Massoud who resents her suddenly present mother whose abandoning has caused Emmy to crave the very institution her mother seeks to escape.
That brings us to Nora, nimbly played by Mary Beth Fisher, who is by turns annoying, self-aware, self-righteous, courageous, and infuriating. I loved and hated her. This was not entirely her or my fault. The playwright cheats a bit and allows Nora to exist in a contradictory netherworld where she is both free enough to have found her voice and re-invented herself as a novelist under a pseudonym, but is also still trapped in a sexist institution that makes her freedom contingent on Torvald’s HAVING granted her a divorce. Torvald is also trapped, because if he now grants the divorce, he risks his good name and his fortune. (The legal implications here are a tad dizzying.)
The play builds to a dramatic, almost farcical climax that puts these two at cross purposes, wrangling center stage over right and wrong, love and hate, autonomy, generosity, and fairness–all the issues underlying their conundrum of a relationship. As Nora and Torvald attempt to unravel various strands legal, emotional, psychological as well as the implications for their future, we find ourselves asking what is a marriage? Is it a political act? A legal contract between equals? A union of hearts and souls that defies categorization? All of these? For everyone? These are the issues that ran through my mind, no matter how divorced from Ibsen’s original characters and text, and these actors make it real. It’s a conversation that occupied my full attention, and one that I believe will not only entertain you, but is worth having, married or not.
Well done! A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2 at the HUNTINGTON THEATRE through February 3!