“Small Mouth Sounds,” the intriguing off-Broadway play by Bess Wohl, has opened the new season at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.
Situated on the theater’s intimate Stage II, this contemporary play, which recently drew raves in New York, is now kicking off a nationwide tour that starts in New Haven. It’s a low-key offering that will probably delight as many audience members as those it divides.
Count me in the first camp.
Six diverse strangers meet at a self-help spa to find meaning and relieve the pain in their lives. They are a bickering lesbian couple (Socorro Santiago and Cherene Snow), a self-satisfied yoga instructor (Edward Chin-Lyn), a Job-like man teetering on the edge (Ben Beckley), a frazzled young woman recovering from a bad break-up (Brenna Palughi) and a quiet, mysterious tall man (Connor Barrett).
Leading the group is their never-seen but often-heard teacher (Orville Mendoza).
The strangers are gathered together and informed by their teacher about the plans for the weekend. These include a journey to discover the “real you” with no smoking, drinking and especially no talking the major rules.
The play then becomes a master class for actors as nonverbal communication allows us to discover, little by little, the back stories of each character. It’s a fascinating exercise that will, no doubt, frustrate some viewers who don’t want to work quite so hard watching a play.
As one of my astute friends observed, it was like a college experimental theater class that, at one time, would have seemed very profound.
There’s some truth in that and there are sections of “Small Mouth Sounds” — performed without intermission — that do meander and stall.
Wohl could also have written a stronger ending instead of the two or three false stops she offers. Still, I was moved and delighted by most of what happens in an adventurous play that observes human behavior from a unique viewpoint.
The ensemble acting, under the knowing direction of Rachel Chavkin, is probably the best we will see this season, and special mention must be given to Mendoza whose line readings as the teacher are simultaneously patronizing and heartfelt.
Often hilarious, Mendoza shades every line with double meaning as he both inspires and frustrates his motley crew of damaged souls. Since he never makes an on-stage appearance during the show, it’s a joy when we finally get to meet this talented actor at the curtain call.
Laura Jellinek’s two-level setting is functional for the most part, but sight lines did prove problematic at times for at least half the audience for scenes taking place on the lower level. Andrew Schneider’s projections and Stowe Nelson’s sound design contribute to the overall bucolic site while also suggesting a level of fear and anxiety just beneath the calm surface.
In all, “Small Mouth Sounds” is a fairly unique theater experience and well worth catching during its stop in New Haven.
“Small Mouth Sounds” continues through Sept. 24 at Long Wharf Theatre. For tickets, call the box office at 203-787-4282 or visit www.longwharf.org.
Tom Holehan is a founder of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and artistic director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theater information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.