Reading Resolution: “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” by Terrence McNally

15. A play: Lips T0gether, Teeth Apart by Terrence McNally

List Progress: 26/30

It’s a classic theater set-up: two couples in a single location, usually somewhere designed for leisure, trading barbs and witty repartee. Parlor dramas, drawing-room comedies: these types of plays are fun to write and easy to stage, so it’s clear to see why they are so popular. But there is a real risk with them, because if the dialogue or acting falls flat, there is no spectacle to distract the audience with and the whole endeavor can become a slog. Thankfully, all of the painful moments to get through in Lips Together, Teeth Apart are that way purely by design.

Terrence McNally’s 1991 play sees two couples on the deck of a beach house: the contemplative Sally, her blunt husband Sam, Sam’s manic sister Chloe, and her boorish husband John. The beach house is in the middle of a gay community on Fire Island, and had belonged to Sally’s brother, who very recently died of AIDS. These two straight couples are completely at odds with their surroundings, their neighbors and each other, and the discomfort just radiates off of all of them. A lot of the dialogue is them talking past each other, sometimes metaphorically and sometimes literally. The play uses a lot of theatrical devices, and occasionally a character will just launch into a non-diegetic monologue (one the other characters do not hear) in the middle of a conversation. The set-up is kind of fascinating, grounded in a meticulous level of realism while still using the conceits of the theater to interrogate deeper truths.

None of these characters are likable people, and a lot of care would need to be taken by the actors to keep them engaging for an entire performance. But if that care and work was put in, I could see this show crackling on stage. It’s of a very particular breed of play, but a very solid example of the sub-genre, and a window into what the cultural conversation around AIDS was in the early nineties. A runner about the brother’s swimming pool, that everyone is going to swim in, of course, just not right now, is brutal and piercing, like the best parts of the play. If you are enough of a theater nerd to be intrigued by anything I just wrote above, this is one worth checking out.

Would I Recommend It: Yes.

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