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Mouth to Mouth

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

David Cale and Lisa Emery.
Photo by Monique Carboni.

It's a question every friend dreads, but feels obliged to ask: "How have you been?" Of course the curiosity can be genuine, but there's often an accompanying undercurrent of fear, the uncomfortable (and unstated) understanding that the answer might go much deeper than you'd prefer.

Kevin Elyot's play Mouth to Mouth, which The New Group is presenting at the Acorn Theatre, is a mild-mannered but stomach-curdling mish-mash of the worst-imaginable answers to that question. "My AIDS is starting to act up again, and I'm planning to go off my pharmaceutical cocktail." "I was fine until I started wondering whether my eye was dangling down my cheek during my recent surgery." "My summer was terrific: I rescued my best friends' 15-year-old son from drowning, and then we made love on the beach."

If these revelations seem inordinately flip in this context, rest assured they're no better as ensconced within the actual play. Elyot, in examining how self-delusion can become self-destruction and eventually conflagrations, does at times go too far. AIDS-infected writer Frank (David Cale), his close friends Laura and Dennis (Lisa Emery and Richard Topol), and their son Phillip (Christopher Abbott) all suffer from the debilitating problem of being afraid to ask for what they want, and thus tend to give others more than they should.

When that fear abates, they tend to ask for what they long for in the wrong way, invariably with results that either diminish themselves or utterly destroy others. These people long ago let the joy in their lives bleed away, and their attempts to recapture it, usually with the worst-possible people under the worst-possible circumstances, create more untenable problems still.

Elyot doesn't make it easy to relate to these people, either with the depth and breadth of their suffering or with a convoluted structure that careens around in time with a clear direction or purpose (other than elongating unsurprising plot twists) seldom evident. At least there's an underlying honestness about them, which helps. And it's possible that, under the right circumstances, this depression-attracting (and -inflicting) group might even prove powerful; imbued with the appropriate sparks of hope, they could more closely resemble people surmounting difficult odds than succumbing to them.

Unfortunately, you get no sense of inherent promise from any of them in Mark Brokaw's harried and dreary production. Brokaw treats them all as drifting, half-transparent symbols of our inability to come to terms with life, rather than as people stumbling through the heart-crushing difficulties of finding lasting love with another person. In doing so, he strips away the gritty grounding in a whizzing-by reality that might accentuate their humanity, leaving them looking like decaying statues in the decrepit town square of Riccardo Hernandez's airy-to-a-fault house-and-restaurant set (which is also harshly lit by Mark McCullough).

The actors themselves provide little that's special. Cale brings little more than a burbling satisfaction to Frank, which doesn't suggest a man facing impossible choices of physical and emotional endurance. Emery and Topol make Laura and Dennis so one-note you can't wait for them to be taken down a notch. Abbott is so fully the model of a callously disconnected adolescent you can't understand what Frank sees in him. Andrew Polk is perhaps too convincing as a disinterested doctor wedded to his cell phone and the memory of a tragic relationship in his own past.

Only Darren Goldstein and Elizabeth Jasicki tap into a well of recognizable emotions. As Dennis and Laura's friends Roger and Cornelia, they most vividly embody people who become trapped within the outward personas they feel they need to adopt just to cope with life. You can all but see Jasicki's Cornelia strain against what's perceived as her stupidity, a trait that doesn't mesh well with her astute intellectual nature. And Goldstein amplifies Roger's efforts to hold back the secrets about Dennis and Laura's family that could either consume him from the inside out, or bring him lasting happiness.

Elyot's contends that the barrier between the two can be imperceptible, especially when obligation - to family, to propriety, to oneself - often trumps desire. But we see so little of the meaningful impact restraint can have on those on both sides that we're left with a jumbled character piece that's as bloated as it is underdeveloped. The title refers to not just the impetus behind Frank and Phillip's secret tryst, but also the necessary (if difficult) way people must communicate - it seems misapplied, however, to a play and production that say so little even as they leave you craving less information.

Mouth to Mouth
Through December 13
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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