Mouth to Mouth
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 31, 2008
Mouth to Mouth, a play by British author Kevin Elyot, gets its U.S. premiere in The New Group's current production, helmed by Mark Brokaw. It stars David Cale (a frequent New Group collaborator) as Frank, a blocked and generally unsuccessful playwright who has AIDS; Cale's performance, a well-modulated study in aloneness, is the main reason for seeing this show.
When we meet Frank, he's sitting at a kitchen table with his best friend Laura; he's trying to tell her what's on his mind, but she is utterly distracted, taking long long drags on her cigarette and seemingly drugged or exhausted. We then flash back to a trendy restaurant where Frank is dining with his doctor; though Gompertz (the physician) is animated where Laura was catatonic, the result is the same—whatever confession Frank is trying to make is constantly ignored and/or drowned out by Gompertz's self-absorbed prattling. The sadness Cale conveys in these two scenes, trying to connect with people who presumably care about him, is palpable.
But then we flash back to the pivotal event at the center of the (heretofore) enigmatic drama. It's a party at Laura's home, celebrating the return of her son Phillip from a prolonged vacation in Spain. Phillip is a golden boy, much beloved by Laura and Frank and apparently worthy of all their adoration. Laura's husband Dennis, Dennis's brother Roger, and Roger's wife Cornelia are at the party as well. The conversation drifts to reveal some interesting tidbits about many of these people; a scene where Frank and Cornelia are left alone to cope with one another is memorable. The main point, though, is to lead up to a series of revelations, starting with Phillip's unexpected bad behavior in Spain (he's gotten a tattoo, among other things), and moving, quickly and inexorably, to what the press release correctly calls the unraveling of the family.
Elyot gives the play a nice parabolic structure by capping it with scenes at the restaurant and at the kitchen table where most of the loose ends are tied together.
But Mouth to Mouth is finally not satisfying, because its climax is difficult to believe. Even as you see the revelations coming, they're hard to swallow: Elyot pulls out the soap-operatic stops, without providing sufficient back story to give the characters motivation for their outsized actions.
Cale manages to be sympathetic even in this part of the play; Frank's transgression (pretty obvious as soon as we meet Phillip) is the most convincing one. Lisa Emery's Laura is over-the-top most of the time, however, while Richard Topol's (admittedly underwritten) Dennis is barely there. Andrew Polk draws on every Bitchy-Old-Queen stereotype in the book as the annoying doctor Gompertz. Darren Goldstein (Roger), Elizabeth Jasicki (Cornelia), and Christopher Abbott (Phillip) all turn in sympathetic, nicely calibrated performances.
Riccardo Hernandez's set is intrusively detailed and elaborate. A gaggle of expensive-looking pots and pans hang over an island in the kitchen, for example, serving no purpose that I could discern. Does it matter that Laura and Dennis are ostentatious consumers?
Finally, Mouth to Mouth's story is difficult to care about. What, specifically, am I supposed to take away from this tale of selfish, disconnected folk? Maybe the piece's age tells on it (it premiered in London in 2001), but from where I sat, there seemed to be little to distinguish this play beyond Cale's intriguing portrayal of a sad man searching for solace.