by Ryan Leeds
Like the play itself, mere words cannot express the depth and beauty that abounds in Bess Wohl’s transcendent Small Mouth Sounds. Last year, it succeeded in making major critics’ “Best of” theatre lists when it premiered at Ars Nova. It recently transferred for a limited run at the Pershing Square Signature Center for 12 weeks.
Small Mouth Sounds introduces us to six vastly different individuals, all of whom have gathered at a silent spiritual retreat in order to find contentment. Led by a cold-ridden teacher (Jojo Gonzalez) who suggests that the “key to enlightenment might be cold medicine,” they each try to come to terms with physical, emotional, and spiritual pain. Sounds hilarious, right?
In spite of the serious sounding synopsis, it is incredibly amusing. With sparse dialogue, the cast is forced to pantomime much of the action, the results of which will leave you smiling in one moment and crying the next. For the most part, the characters names are unknown (unless you look at the playbill, which ushers provide after the show). It is a powerful approach which allows us to connect to all of their plights in an everyman sense. At some point in our lives, we have experienced the exact same emotions as these characters: love, hate, rage, regret, sadness, confusion, joy, shame, jealously. Each of them are laid bare in a manner that is equal parts entertaining and therapeutic.
Towards the end of the retreat, one of the participants, Ned (Brad Heberlee), shares a bit about his personal problems and provides some commentary on the doomed state of the planet: “I keep thinking that maybe we shouldn’t be at peace… because to be at peace in a world that’s… At war… Just seems… Wrong?” It is perhaps one of the most thought provoking lines in the play, one in which I am still contemplating. Wohl’s script is packed with moments like this, leaving audiences with a feast of intellectual and emotional food for thought.
Hit maker Rachel Chavkin, currently represented downtown with Hadestown and director of Broadway’s upcoming Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 has succeeded in giving her ultra-talented cast enough leeway to fully explore every nuance through Wohl’s well-written characters. The simple but effective staging also allows theatergoers the chance to witness fellow audience reactions, adding an additional layer of humanity.
It is perhaps premature and prejudice given the fact that we are only halfway through the year, but I can’t imagine that a better theater piece will emerge in 2016. My only criticism is that, after the show’s closing on September 25, these weary pilgrims will permanetly end their retreat. Let’s hope—after careful meditation—that enlightened producers will lead them to the light of Broadway.
Here’s what other critics had to say:
“When the week ends, we don’t get the impression that sore hearts have necessarily been healed; some may be even sorer than before. But as the characters awkwardly bid one another goodbye, the play leaves behind its own warming afterglow. You may not emerge wanting to spend a week with your mouth shut, but Ms. Wohl’s play makes a wonderful case for how eloquently silence can speak.” New York Times
“It is joyful and hilarious about the absolutely worst things we all face, producing, as in The Humans, its enormous wallop of emotional power, no less than its comedy, from the acknowledgment of the pain most people are in.” New York Magazine
Small Mouth Sounds
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th)
Through September 25th
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.