Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Small Mouth Sounds and Men on Boats

Small Mouth Sounds, a play by Bess Wohl currently being restaged at the Signature Theater after an initial run at Ars Nova last year, is sweet and diverting, if not as deft or probing as it seems to want to be. Still, it's fun, and very well-performed. The general thrust: six people, only two of whom know one another, attend a weeklong silent yoga retreat (a seventh cast member, not seen until the curtain call, is the group's instructor, who frequently addresses the retreaters over a particularly unyogic PA system). Despite their silence, which is only occasionally broken over the course of the week, the various participants nevertheless get to know one another (or think they do), make meaningful connections (or fail to), and do their level best to get away from what ails them.

Small Mouth Sounds has been getting raves, and I hate to poison the well, even a little--especially since the cast is so winning and the production so warm. Still, I didn't fall completely in love with the play, the overarching narrative of which sometimes felt a little too easy in some places, and a little forced in others. Don't get me wrong--this isn't a pan, it's more like a 7 out of 10. The play does fine with its depictions: humans are messy and interesting and quirky, and the characters all deliver the goods on that front. Also, one of the play's greatest strengths is how brilliantly it nails contemporary American yoga culture. As a longtime practitioner of yoga (if not of silence), I was frequently tickled by everything from the instructor's softly-intoned, inspirational fables to the outfits Rodney (Babak Tafti) wore--and by his name, even, which was surely a reference to Rodney Yee.

And yet I was a little underwhelmed by some of the play's plot points and thematic conceits. Yes, right, sometimes the most devoted and seemingly spiritually connected people end up having major flaws, and can even turn out to be less enlightened or enlightenable than those who initially seem ridiculously out of place at a spiritual retreat. Yes, sometimes, whether we talk too much or not at all, we can fail to truly hear or understand one another. And yes, conversely, sometimes connections between two people happen instantly and deeply, as if by magic, also regardless of whether words are exchanged at all. Is that all there is?

As an extended acting exercise that has been placed in the hands of a very, very good ensemble, Small Mouth Sounds is better than good. I'm just not sure that the characters' stories, whether spoken or not, fully add up to the sum of their parts.

Sara Krulwich
Clubbed Thumb's Men on Boats, which is playing right down 42nd Street from Signature at Playwrights Horizons, and which I saw immediately following Small Mouth Sounds, is also being restaged after a run last summer at the Wild Project (see Wendy Caster's rave review of that production here). In some respects, the shows feel like companion pieces, in that both are ultimately sympathetic plays about restless, wandering souls in search of meaning and purpose. But where Small Mouth Sounds fails to dig as deep as it might, Men on Boats initially comes off as silly, one-joke fluff, only to become a lot more layered as it goes.

Men on Boats, by Jaclyn Backhaus, fits relatively snugly into the contemporary "postmodern history" category of shows: like Hamilton, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' An Octoroon, among others, Men on Boats examines the distant past using contemporary jargon and a decidedly jaundiced modern perspective, thereby teaching audiences a little about history while simultaneously commenting on it. This particular play is set in 1869, and focuses on the three-month geographic and scientific expedition of segments of the Colorado and Green rivers by the naturalist John Wesley Powell, who set off on the trip with nine other (white) men. In Backhaus's very funny recreation of the adventure, the ten explorers are all played by women, and the cast is racially diverse.

Rather than donning full drag, the cast doesn't try to convince the audience, even for a second, that they are actually men. Long hair flies free, there's no painted-on stubble or spirit-gummed facial hair, costumes don't obscure the natural shape of the women's bodies. There is occasional swaggering or strutting, but the acting is, for the most part, natural and comfortable. And, as a result, the situations and the dialogue are often really fucking hilarious.

In short, the play and its players do a fine job of commenting frequently and in great depth on American heteronormative masculinity as a sociocultural construct. This is all the more impressive since the direction and the cast's interpretations never get mean, snarky, or cheap. The various roles the women play all touch on male prototypes, which are impressively broad given the diversity and range of the actors: there's the damaged-but-driven leader, the unsure but ultimately heroic man-boy, the foppish adventurer, the anti-authoritarian rebel, the hardbitten old coot, the mystical warrior--basically every sort of straight guy, black or white, that you've ever seen versions of in movies, on tv, and in fiction.

Men on Boats lags a little near the end, but the conclusion dispenses with the jokiness and is suddenly, strangely moving. We are, all of us, stuck wrestling with the gendered strictures we've been culturally conditioned to embody, after all; Men on Boats implies that as we wrestle, we might as well cut out the posturing bullshit and support one another as we work toward a common good. And if, in the process, we can fry up some fish, name some mountains after ourselves, discuss how we'd most like to die, and sing a couple of rousing camp songs together, then so much the better.

Elke Young

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