Kev Berry, Molly Grogan and Nicole Serratore saw Ars Nova’s production of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, directed by Rachel Chavkin, at the Pershing Square Signature Center’s Linney Theater. After the twice extended Ars Nova production from 2015, the play, set during a silent, spiritual retreat, and its tensions between the sacred and the profane incited mixed reactions in this remount.
Small Mouth Sounds put me in mind of the popularized zen proverb that says, “When you have realized understanding, even one word is too much.” That idea is both the premise of the silent spiritual retreat upon which the play’s six characters embark but it also summed up my impressions of the way the play mostly makes easy fun of the cliches of the contemporary spiritual journey. I’ve heard Small Mouth Sounds referred to as the “silent” play, but there is, in fact, a lot of talking and conventional narrative in it, so if it is meant in any way as an experiment with silence on stage, it’s a lost opportunity. To paraphrase another zen master, “To accept some idea of truth without experiencing it is like enjoying a painting of a cake rather than eating one.”
I’ve made a few silent retreats and the one thing no one can master at first is the art of not speaking, whereas here everyone falls right into line, while paradoxically going out of their way to communicate somehow with each other. So as both a treatment of the spiritual quest and a theatrical experiment, I thought it was rather disappointingly facile.
I went to an all boys Catholic high school on Long Island. I frequently write about my experiences as a gay student pariahed in those halls, in my plays and in my journal. After seeing Small Mouth Sounds, I spent my ride back to Bushwick thinking about one of the few fond memories I have of high school. The school had a retreat house in middle of the woods in upstate New York. Only select groups were invited to take retreats up there, and during my sophomore year, the glee club, of which I was a member, was selected to head up for the weekend, for a silent retreat. After the opening prayer service or whatever, we all tried, we did. But boys will be boys, and as such, it unraveled into this strange, joyful, hilarious mess of a weekend, with the Marianist brother struggling to keep both us and himself quiet, as we became louder and louder across the snowy weekend.
I think the silent retreatants in Small Mouth Sounds go through a similar unraveling, albeit far sadder. At first, they didn’t need words to communicate with one another. Wohl commits to the rule, using sounds like the crinkling of a potato chip bag and the slamming down of a shoe to communicate this story, one that didn’t need words or exact reasons for its audience to understand that each of the six was going through a profound change in his or her life. However, as the retreatants’ lives fall apart across their five days in the woods, so did Wohl’s commitment to the rule: as it turns out, we do need words to understand exactly what’s happening with these folks, and probably to further the plot. I think my one wish with the play is that its commitment to its own silence had fallen apart more gradually. Instead, after sitting through the first half of the play hearing only the voice of the unseen Teacher, we are suddenly bombarded with a massive, though very funny, monologue that explicitly explains one of the characters’ full circumstances. It felt sudden and unearned.
I saw the earlier version of Small Mouth Sounds at Ars Nova which involved much of the same cast as here and this new production boasts few new cast members (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Max Baker, and Zoe Winters). For this larger space, the play was funnier and less precious than my first experience of it. Perhaps that’s also the result of already knowing the emotional beats of the play and shifting focus to the performances over the plot. But it also felt like the performances leaned into the comedy a bit more here. As funny as the play is, I think it lost a little of the original intimate, thoughtful, and contemplative nature as it scaled up.
As much as it may not be a “silent” play I still find the performances are largely dependent on silent reaction and the play depends on strong actors. Quincy Tyler Bernstine delivers pointed side-eye. Her assessment of people and events with just a look is frequently delightful and provides the cynic’s perspective, yet her character commits more to the process as time goes on and Bernstine communicates that shift so delicately. Brad Heberlee’s Ned, who is trying so hard, is just a maelstrom of failure and sporting the most defeated tighty-whities the stage has ever seen. And you cannot imagine that that underwear could get more pathetic and then it does. Heberlee makes Ned’s desperate positivity spill from every action. It’s these fine details that are so wonderfully wrought.
Like Kev, I’m not sure we even need Ned’s verbose (albeit funny) monologue. We know him completely without the particulars of his life. And I like living in the unknown. The fumbling the characters experience in the silence is the rare opportunity in narrative theater to let us just sit with a little confusion. I still find the play builds many successful interactions without words and we see keenly observed performances of anxiety, arrogance, selfishness, intimacy, lust, desire, connection, and disconnection without anyone telling us about them.
What Small Mouth Sounds does well for me is express the anomie, loss of spirituality and consequent moral suffering experienced in contemporary Western societies. Wohl give us familiar types we can relate to: the girl going through a breakup, the “yogi,” the couple dealing with cancer, the parent grieving the loss of a child, the guy for whom nothing seems to go right. These familiar characters scream silent screams of frustration, rage and pain; they may as well be at a silent retreat because it feels like they have no one to turn to who would really listen to them anyway. How do you make sense of the untimely death of a loved one if you don’t believe in a divinely inspired “meaning of life”? How do you deal with the often unbearable load of living in the chaos of loss and grieving in our societies that don’t value mourning and sadness as process and recovery? I felt for these lost souls as they burned their intentions in a totally meaningless yet momentarily symbolic gesture: what else can they do? They have no resources for keeping them going except simple fortitude and stoicism. The play shows clearly that even when the characters “couple up” they can’t depend on each other to have their backs. I thought Wohl makes a keen reading of those tensions.
I love the frequent juxtapositions of this motley band of acolytes giving over to the unseen voice of “authority” desperately seeking guidance from this guru and every indication that this guru is barely in control of his own world. We’re all a mess. Even our teachers. The play’s success is in the tension of seeing each character want something from this experience and each leave with different levels of achievement and the difficult recognition of that. Some characters do better to hide their discombobulation but all these carefully crafted characters are floundering in their lives and they are living with real pain. Bess Wohl’s play, and the guru within it, offer comfort that no one is alone in this.
The play refuses to give in to hopelessness; although it sounds like Molly you maybe disagree with this. Much like Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die, the focus on the inevitable pain and death of human mortality has an uplifting quality to it. No one gets out of this life alive. So there is a balm in that truth. This all shall pass.
The final scene where Quincy Tyler Bernstine’s character, Judy, discovers she can’t communicate with Jan (Max Baker), to whom she had become attached as a kind of soulmate, and her devastated sobs as she realizes this, said it all for me. She had obviously been looking forward to sharing with this generous spirit outside of the confines of the retreat, but Wohl won’t give her that and she leaves with her attentive and loving partner, Joan (Marcia DeBonis) but she is ultimately alone in her particular suffering, as a cancer patient who is probably going to die of her illness. Wohl also makes this clear in the couple’s interactions: Joan is angry that Judy isn’t taking Joan’s pain into consideration; “You’re not the only one suffering here!” she yells at Judy, or something to that effect. But Joan is not the one who is going to die. Her pain is real, but not in any way similar to Judy’s. How helpful it might have been to Judy to share with Jan who lost a child, but instead, she feels more pain for the loss of what he might have provided her in companionship or helped her with. So it’s maybe not hopelessness the play deals in because that would imply the denied possibility of hope, whereas here I felt a forgone defeat, which is worse.
I think no matter how much I laughed, there were mantras and rhetoric being offered that I could cling to as truths for myself. A salad bar approach to almost any religion or spirituality (taking what you like and leaving behind the rest) may be antithetical to a proper practice of some religions (I was raised Catholic so at least in that faith it’s verboten) but I suspect many of us are guilty of it. And for some of these weary souls, this retreat felt like a bit of a Hail Mary (the football pass not the prayer). The play allows for some to come to the retreat half-heartedly and hold it tighter once they are there, whereas others who may have given over to it early, lose their faith in it’s benefits. Even in the ridiculous parables and flute music, the desire to find enlightenment, clarity, or simply a bit of internal peace feels honest and true. The play feels like it respects the quest.
The performances were all around gorgeous, beautifully rendered portraits of tortured souls. Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Marcia DeBonis, in particular, served up such physically specific and truthful performances that they didn’t even need the minimal dialogue they were assigned. So lovely. The sterile retreat house, by Laura Jellinek, in which we were enclosed in during the performance, and the lighting by Mike Inwood served their purposes well. The real star, for me at least, was Stowe Nelson’s sound design, which provided preshow ambience and provided offstage narrative with greater clarity than I’ve ever experienced, a real treat for the ears. Rachel Chavkin, a director whose work I always look forward to seeing, provided very strong staging and her unique sense of humor to bolster the play into a wonderful production with even more wonderful performances.
I’d second Kev’s celebration of the tech elements in this production. The lighting (by Mike Inwood) helps guide our attention and allows us to sit in “stage” moonlight and still follow the action. The rumbling rain and storms from the sound design (by Stowe Nelson) made me feel a damp in the room that was not really there.
Agreed. The natural world is almost tangibly present here thanks to the sound and lighting but this is more than sensory. Nature is where probably most of our contemporaries might say they find the divine, if they are likely to admit believing in that concept, and its presence here provides a welcome and symbolic counterpoint of mystery and calm to the human tragedy of the play. The strongest performance for me was possibly the voice of the guru (Jojo Gonzalez): his inflections and rhythms conjured up a whole world around this flawed “teacher” who, as Nicole noted, is no different or better than his acolytes. Again, where should we turn for help? The comedy of Small Mouth Sounds at least helps us swallow a very bitter pill but the tension between these two forces – on the one hand, make fun of the modern human condition; on the other, present it rawly (because some of the moments in the play are quite raw, thanks to the fine acting, as we’ve all noted) kept me wondering where Wohl’s intentions lay. Our intentions should align with our actions, is another zen precept after all.