Aside from an occasional unicorn like The Humans, Off and Off–Off Broadway plays almost never dare transfer to Broadway anymore, which means that New Yorkers who miss them in their original limited runs don’t get a second chance. Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds seemed to be one such play: Despite rave reviews for its premiere in March of last year, it closed as scheduled after six weeks and basically disappeared. How many people saw it in Ars Nova’s 99-seat space? Perhaps 5,000. (Thanks to end-stage Tony-mania, I wasn’t one of them.) And yet here it is again, in the 199-seat Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Signature Center, where it opens tonight for a three-month commercial run. Should it succeed, that would be great news, and not just because the theater industry needs to find a fruitful middle ground between tiny not-for-profit stages and Broadway, with middle-ground prices to match. Over the course of its run, some 20,000 people, typically paying $75, could catch Small Mouth Sounds at the Signature.
But Small Mouth Sounds is also, as it happens, a terrific new play in a beautiful production (by Rachel Chavkin) that deserves to be seen on its own merits — seen and reseen, in fact. This is all the more encouraging because it is challenging fare, in subject and style. I don’t mean that it is abstruse or insufferable; quite the opposite, though suffering is its subject. Rather, it is joyful and hilarious about the absolutely worst things we all face, producing, as in The Humans, its enormous wallop of emotional power, no less than its comedy, from the acknowledgment of the pain most people are in. Indeed, the setup seems almost like that of a sitcom. Six mostly incompatible people show up for a five-day retreat led by a famous spiritual guide at what appears, in Laura Jellinek’s sleek Zen set, to be an upstate New York conference center. (The audience is banked on two sides of the long rectangular space, so we, too, are participants.) After a brief welcome, the teacher gives the six “retreaters” ground rules — no smoking, no food in the cabins, no cellphones — that will all be broken in due course.
The six are both a Lifeboat-style sampling of types and a deeply plausible representation of the kinds of people who might find themselves choosing (or being forced) to attend such a retreat. Joan and Judy are a middle-aged couple bearing a load of fear: Judy (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) seems to have cancer, and Joan (Marcia DeBonis) appears to be overwhelmed by it. After years of relentless calamity, including a shattered skull, Ned (Brad Heberlee) is a serial seeker barely holding it together. The end of a long-term relationship seems to have thrown Alicia (Zoë Winters) into a tailspin of shame, while the trap of marriage seems to have left the sexy, show-off yogi Rodney (Babak Tafti) clawing for an exit. And it appears that Jan (Max Baker) carries around with him, often literally, the grief of a terrible loss.
That I keep saying “seems” and “appears” brings us to the play’s style: The retreat is meant to be silent and, for the most part, the participants comply. So what we “know” about them is really only a guess, the result of 100 minutes of gestures, expressions, grunts, snorts, snores, sighs, growls, yelps, and, yes, “small mouth sounds.” As in life, some things are therefore never clear and — perhaps also as in life — some probably change from performance to performance. This does not, however, make the play a chore; rather, all of these nonverbal clues combine, in Chavkin’s incredibly confident orchestration, to form a profoundly entertaining and quasi-musical portrait of people living under great pressure. The production’s design elements all add to that effect, but perhaps it’s only natural that the most powerful is Stowe Nelson’s soundscape of rain, birdsong, and bears. Still, everything pulls you in. As the characters avoid the awakenings they seek, as they journal or IM or couple (there’s nudity) or make gestures toward one another that are almost always misunderstood, we gradually release our usual audience defenses and melt with love, as if watching helpless puppies in a store window.
At least in part, that’s because the cast, three of whom are new to the production, are working so successfully in a vein of intensely detailed realism that is fast becoming the Off Broadway house style. Each of the retreaters must, for instance, unroll a sleeping mat each night; each does it differently from the others, and differently according to the events that have transpired. When the six of them sit together, silently listening to the teacher, it’s like watching six short stories in progress: Joan over-engaging (she’s a therapist), Judy smirking (she’s a cynic), Alicia primping, Rodney anticipating, Ned lapping it up, and Jan mostly falling asleep or swatting at mosquitoes. In an amusing variation on the play’s technique, the teacher (Jojo Gonzalez) operates under an opposite constraint: he is heard, Godlike, over the sound system but never seen. He’s also a bit of an ass, Wohl allows, offering penny-ante koans and breaking his own rules. Or you could say he is, like the rest, all too human. He knows one sad thing: That no one’s grief is unique. But he has no answer to the question Ned manages to ask so torturously (and that the play asks so suavely): If the world is a place of torment, is the search for serenity fundamentally wrong?
Small Mouth Sounds is at the Signature Center through September 25.