There is hardly any dialogue in Small Mouth Sounds, a play about six weekend retreaters who have taken vows of silence. Now and then we hear one of them slip up and mutter a few words, but otherwise, the bulk of the dialogue issues from the unseen (and amusingly incompetent) retreat leader, played with a deadpan, exaggerated chill by Jojo Gonzales. The spiritual seekers are much like people we all know: the dude so obsessed with fitness that he obliviously performs yoga poses at inappropriate times (Babak Tafti); the middle-aged lesbian couple with longstanding and unspoken (no pun intended) relationship problems (Marcia DeBonis and Quincy Tyler Bernstine); the gum-smacking blonde who carries far too much luggage (Zoë Winters); and the crunchy guy who never removes his knit cap (Brad Heberlee). Most intriguing of all, and the one who seems less of a “type” than the others, is a thoughtful old man with a terrifically expressive face. Played by Max Baker, his subtle presence on stage is the most arresting of all.
The play feels more like a series of vignettes than a connected plot. In the hands of someone less competent, this could get boring, but director Rachel Chavkin’s choices kept the audience on their toes, despite the sparse dialogue and episodic structure. During one of the most successful scenes, we see the three pairs of campers preparing to lie down for the night. As they perform their idiosyncratic bedtime routines, often to the annoyance of their cabin partners, the lighting in the theater subtly shifts to direct our attention from one pair to the next. With the audience in stadium seating that runs down both sides of the long stage, the effect was like watching a three-ring circus.
At one point the leader, frustrated with his pabulum of pop spirituality, asks the group if any of them will actually change once the retreat is over. For most of the characters, the answer is probably no, but we do see one character make a simple gesture that represents a silent, yet courageous confession.
Laura Jellinek’s set design is fittingly bare, and it works as a visual representation of the serene, Zen-like space that the characters are trying to find in their inner lives. Adding to this effect are the lovely video projections by Andrew Schneider, with sound by Stowe Nelson, which open the show and punctuate scenes.
Many of the vignettes are genuinely funny; at the performance we attended, the audience cracked up over and over. Beckett said that nothing is funnier than unhappiness, a maxim that playwright Bess Wohl seems to have taken to heart for much of the show. If the characters share anything in common, it’s an overdeveloped sense of earnestness, which makes their situation ripe for comedy. There is something delightful about watching them search for answers to explain their existence; their sincere belief that they will find enlightenment at this lame retreat is both humorous and touchingly sad.
However, near the end the play careens off its comic course and into a sincere lesson: the teacher reassures his students that whatever they are going through, they are not alone. It’s an honest attempt at comfort, for the audience as much as for the retreaters, but it deflates all the comedic work that has been done. The ending would have been more effective if the play had kept straddling the line between absurdity and tragedy, thus maintaining the Beckettian spirit with which it began.
Ars Nova’s production of Small Mouth Sounds continues at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street, Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan) through October 9.