By Bess Wohl; Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Off Broadway, New Play
Extended through 4.25.15
Ars Nova, 511 West 54th Street
by Shoshana Roberts on 3.23.15
Jessica Almasy, Erik Lochtefeld, Sakina Jaffrey, Babak Tafti, Brad Heberlee, and Marcia DeBonis in Small Mouth Sounds. Photo by Ben Arons.
BOTTOM LINE: This all star cast explores life with a vow of silence as they tug at our heartstrings and tickle our funny bones.
"The sound of silence" is not just a Simon and Garfunkel song, it is a legitimately profound idea as demonstrated in this impressive production. But besides that, silence can be freaking hilarious. Wide eyed and attentive I sat on the edge of my seat watching annoyance, anger, yearning, passion, misery, and a multitude of other emotions, without dialogue. Don't get me wrong, in Small Mouth Sounds people, at times, use verbal communication, but that is less than fifty percent of the time. Yet, despite the few words, there are so many audible noises from shuffling papers, food wrappers, sighs, giggles, crying, and so many other actions that you wouldn't necessarily think of as having sound.
The characters are on a retreat and the guiding figure is a peaceful Tibetan man (Jojo Gonzalez) who is a little behind the modern world, letting us know that he "recently obtained email." With a cold and the sniffles he lectures the participants on making a change in their lives. His stories caused me a furrowed brow and a smirk, but the messages rang true. Each person at the retreat creates an intention or goal to work on for their span of silence. Granted, the six individuals each have an enthralling story that we only get to peak into while they interact non-verbally, awkwardly, and sweetly. Many of them are out of their elements, like the attractive rule-breaking woman Alicia (Jessica Almasy), and the couple Judy (Sakina Jaffrey) and Joan (Marcia Debonis) who are not quite cut out for breaking ties from technology and the conveniences of the modern world. Others like rock climber Ned (Brad Heberlee) and yogi Rodney (Babak Tafti) are more used to the natural lifestyle with camping and meditation. Then there is Jan (Erik Lochtefeld) who is neat and observant and hard to read. This enthralling story follows the characters as they are not speaking, but I don't think they would even know what to say if they weren't at a silent retreat. Words escape us when we have intense emotions, and the emotions from each character here are consistently off the charts.
With plays, movies, and TV shows I like to guess "whodunit" and the other unknown factors. During Small Mouth Sounds I felt no need. I found observing the actors as their characters watching each other to be fascinating. Taking that a step further, you can also see the audience on the other side of the performance space. That allowed me to see others observing those who were watching their fellow retreaters. Real life is spectacular and I appreciated the opportunity to be in the moment and simply observe.
(Small Mouth Sounds plays at Ars Nova, 511 West 54th Street, through April 25, 2015. Performances are Mondays through Wednesdays at 7PM; and Thursdays through Saturdays at 8PM. Tickets are $35 and are available at arsnovanyc.come or by calling 212.352.3101.)