Lips Together, Teeth Apart

By Terrence McNallyseasonTitle_LipsTogetherTeethApart

Directed by Ted Hoerl

Produced by Eclipse Theatre Company, Chicago

Perfect Start to Season of McNally

Eclipse’s mission is to showcase one author each season, and they chose well to dedicate this season to Terrence McNally. Active since the 1960s, McNally has been a noteworthy contributor to plays about gay life for nearly the entire modern gay rights movement, though his themes of love and loneliness are universal. Eclipse has selected three of McNally’s mid-career plays that were written within four years of each other: Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991), A Perfect Ganesh (1993), and The Lisbon Traviata (1989), and begins with a production that is as moving as it is challenging.

Lips-Together-Teeth-Apart-1-web
Nathaniel Swift, Carin Silkaitis, Dennis Grimes, and Kristin Collins. All photos by Scott Dray.

Sam Truman (Dennis Grimes) and Chloe Haddock (Carin Silkaitis) are brother and sister. They are spending July 4th, 1990, at a house on Fire Island with Dennis’s wife, Sally (Kristin Collins) and Chloe’s husband, John (Nathaniel Swift), following the death of the previous owner, Sally’s brother, from AIDS. Tensions are high, as both couples are fighting internally, and Sam and Chloe rightly suspect Sally and John of having an affair. John is unsure how to tell Sally he has terminal cancer, and Chloe babbles nonstop in an overbearing manner to conceal her anxiety. Sally is disturbed by having seen a man swim far out into the ocean, and not come back. The foursome are also discomforted to varying degrees by the gay men surrounding them who make Fire Island their summer getaway. Nobody’s saying it, but they’re also afraid to get into the pool, for fear of contamination.

As the day progresses, tempers and fears flare into crises. The man who swam out drowns, confronting the couples with how little they value gay men’s lives. They each believe homosexuality is a defect caused by neglectful parenting, and would take it as a sign of failure if any of their children were to be gay. John and Chloe already have several children, whom they have left with a relative out of concern Fire Island was not kid-friendly, but Sally has miscarried all her pregnancies, and is afraid if she tells Sam she’s pregnant again, they’ll just be disappointed (and though she brushes the possibility aside, it may not be his). There’s also the matter of what will become of the house, which Sam estimates to be worth over $800,000, and therefore will certainly not be going to Sally’s brother’s boyfriend.

Lips-Together-Teeth-Apart-7-web
Nathaniel Swift and Carin Silkaitis

The play, which is a little under three hours, is much heavier on character than plot. McNally frequently uses the device of characters soliloquizing while the other actors repeat sentences and gestures in the background. Director Ted Hoerl keeps these moments intense and quick enough to avoid distracting from what drama there is. He has assembled an ideal cast, who between them share experience in most of Chicago’s best companies. Silkaitis, as Chloe, is absolutely infuriating with her non-stop oversharing, judgements, and banal chatter. She mixes her performance with appropriate pathos as the friendliest of the four to the neighbors and the heartbreak of being married to a dying man who cheated on her, but also masters the comedy of Chloe’s constant intrusions. John, Chloe’s husband, is a college dean, and Swift plays him with arrogant aloofness that, in its own way, is nearly as grating as Chloe’s lack of boundaries. While this character is hard to like, Swift gradually opens up over the course of the evening, allowing us a glimpse of a person underneath who is struggling to figure out how to be brave.

Lips-Together-Teeth-Apart-2b-web
Dennis Grimes and Kristin Collins

Grimes’s Sam is in many ways the opposite of John. The owner of a construction company, Sam is a good businessman but has the least education or cultural refinement. Costume designer Zachary Alexander has him spending much of the play in denim or nothing at all, while John wears a yellow polo shirt and red slacks. The two clash constantly, violently at one point, and John’s hostility towards his wife puts Sam in the awkward position of defending his obnoxious sister. Grimes’s performance shares some of Silkaitis’s child-like energy, and he makes Sam innocent enough for the growth he experiences over the course of the play to seem plausible. Collins, as Sally, has the most low-key and conflicted character. She begins the play by painting a picture of the ocean, but doubting she has the artistic skill to do justice to its beauty. Still grieving the loss of her brother, but never having accepted his sexuality, she is wracked with guilt and defiance. While all the actors are wonderful, I found Collins’s portrayal to be the most emotionally connected to the audience.

Lips-Together-Teeth-Apart-3-web
Nathaniel Swift, Dennis Grimes, and Kristin Collins

I should also praise Kevin Hagan’s set. Beautifully detailed and containing elaborate interior spaces, it is easy to see why this house is worth so much. Though the set is high up to allow room for a pool that is really more of a hot tub, the characters constantly worry about their neighbors looking down on them. The attitudes they express make this play a time capsule, and risk straining the audience in 2015. However, McNally’s focus on the difficulty of finding love in the face of death remains relevant for everybody, and is beautifully illustrated here. Despite their grim situation, he sprinkles the play with signs of hope for their enlightenment that would prove prophetic. Producing Lips Together, Teeth Apart means something very different now than when it premiered, and that will likely prove true for the rest of Eclipse’s season as well. But it’s a play that deserves to be revisited.

Highly Recommended

Jacob Davis
3jacob.davis@gmail.com

Reviewed April 20, 2015

This show has been Jeff recommended.

For more information, see Lips Together, Teeth Apart’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at the Athenaeum, 2936 N Southport Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $30, with discounts for students and seniors; or order, call 773-935-6875 or visit www.athenaeum.org. Shows are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm through May 24. Running time is about three hours with two intermissions. This show contains strong language.