Lips Together, Teeth Apart

There's something so American about stress. We work longer hours, vacation less, and have more debt than any other Western industrialized people. As a result, we have a lot of pent-up anger, pain, and frustration that comes out in funny ways. According to estimates, somewhere between 10 and 30 million of us grind our teeth.

Don't laugh. Or, actually, you should laugh. At least that's what Terrence McNally prescribes in his 1991 comedy, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, now in production by the Theatre Group. Another thing you should do is repeat the title of this play, like a mantra, before you go to sleep: Your jaw will relax, you'll stop grinding your teeth, and you'll be more rested in the morning.

I tried doing this during the play, but it didn't work. There I was, enjoying what should have been a relaxing 4th of July with two couples at their summer home along the shore on Fire Island. But underneath the relaxed fašade of drinks and hors d'oeuvres, a good book and a watercolor in progress, I was anxious.

Photo of Jesse Pearlman as John and Gina Wencel as Chloe
Jesse Pearlman as John
and Gina Wencel as Chloe
Photo: Theatre Group
Part of this had to do with Chloe, who was in the kitchen preparing snacks for her husband, her brother, and her sister-in-law. Once she began talking, she never stopped (except when she was off-stage). Unlike the other characters on stage, I couldn't pour myself a drink, so I had to grin and bear it, or grind my teeth.

Gina Wencel is a non-stop bundle of energy as Chloe. She goes on like this for two hours (What was she on?), grinning the whole time, producing one of the most emotionally neurotic characters I've seen in years. Keeping nothing to herself, she pours forth a stream-of-consciousness that would impress James Joyce. Watching her mix French phrases, old wives tales, childhood memories, and marital fears made my jaw drop. This was a good thing, as it temporarily stopped me from grinding my teeth.

Chloe's husband, John, has the patience of a saint. Of course, he's always got a drink nearby. You can tell he's hiding something underneath that strong, silent exterior, but whatever's gnashing at him isn't readily apparent. Perhaps it's his wife's unfiltered personality? I'm sure he grinds his teeth in his sleep.

Jesse Pearlman keeps a tight rein on John's inner explosiveness, methodically folding his paper and grimacing when his reading is rudely interrupted by his brother-in-law (Sam), or tersely defending his sovereignty, again from his brother-in-law, over the kite he found and is gleefully flying.

Photo of Dale Tagtmeyer as Sam and Shelly Bordas as Sally
Dale Tagtmeyer as Sam
and Shelly Bordas as Sally
Photo: Theatre Group
Sam keeps at it, asking John about Chloe's condition and their marriage, but gets only an oblique response. Like his sister, Sam obsesses over details and can't sit still. His wife, Sally, tells us that Sam grinds his teeth and that he refuses to heed her advice of repeating the aforementioned mantra.

Yet Sam is aware of his own neuroses, and shares his fears with the audience. Scratching himself in-between nervous tics, Dale Tagtmeyer revels in Sam's idiosyncrasies. His Sam is worried about losing Sally, but seemingly powerless to stop himself from rubbing her the wrong way.

Sally is introspective, and seems to be the most rooted of the group. She's happy to be painting and gazing out to sea at the periphery of the action. The beach house was given to her by her brother who died of AIDS, and she's considering giving it to his lover. She may be uncomfortable with the homophobia expressed by her companions, but she harbors her own ill-informed prejudices and dark secrets.

Hovering between two worlds, those of her late brother's death and her own messy life, Shelly Bordas' Sally is a unique blend of detachment from pain and passion for life. She worries over the safety of a lone swimmer far from shore, but throws caution to the wind in her personal affairs when the mood strikes her.

Like most of McNally's work, Lips Together, Teeth Apart holds more drama in the internal machinations of the characters than in any actions they generate. But the plot here is particularly listless.

Over and over we ask ourselves, "Where is this going?" Finally, a confession before intermission seems to promise a coming conflict, but it fails to materialize. Late in the second act, we are still wondering where McNally is headed, and when the four in-laws stand waving American flags and marveling at the offshore fireworks, we sense they have found a patriotic means of reducing stress that expends more calories than putting flag decals on automobiles. Anticipating closure, we try and put two and two together, but we discover there's more to come.

Finally, a quarter-hour later, having played out all their repressions, our formerly clenching compatriots relax, slack-jawed, at peace with themselves and one another. I'm relieved for them, but by now my own jaw muscles are aching. A Google search tells me that stress management and auto-suggestion are recommended for teeth grinding, so I begin to chant. "Lips Together, Teeth Apart," I repeat, over and over. Where are my dentures?

The Theatre Group's production of Lips Together, Teeth Apart runs through March 12th. 303-777-3292.

Bob Bows


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