Speaking in Tongues

By Andrew Bovell; Directed by Louis Wells

Sarah Brill, Francesca Day and David Douglas in Cake Productions' Speaking in Tongues. Photo by Nathan Johnson.

BOTTOM LINE: Ehhhhh. Some things are good, but the show suffers from a lack of complex performances.

Speaking in Tongues, 
written by Andrew Bovell, had its premiere performance at the Roundabout Theatre Company in 2001. Here, the play is re-mounted by Cake Productions, to generic and only mildly intriguing results. It's difficult to critique this show, as it falls into that in-between place. You know that place. It's the place reserved for shows that fall short of being an enjoyable, intriguing performance, but have enough merit so as not to invite the dreaded watch-checking/contemplating walking out.

The technical elements are, on the whole, successful. The scenic design is understated and functional, and I'd like to give special notice to lighting designer Jessica Burgess for her beautiful and focused lighting, which I'm sure she accomplished by using very few instruments in what is clearly an intimate space. The costumes, props, and sound all work together, so the world of the play is presented well. This is a complex play to stage in a small space, as there are dual scenes with overlapping dialogue happening for almost the entire script, and I think director Louis Wells did a fine job of making what could have been a blocking mess into a smooth and relatively comprehensive narrative.

Now, to the acting and the script itself. The press notes describe Speaking in Tongues as: "Two couples put their own estranged lives in perspective as they share the stories that changed them forever in this partner-swapping, film noir thriller." It sounds intriguing, right? I'm not sure where the ship goes off the rails, but it clearly goes off somewhere. The pacing is arduous, so the play feels slow, cold, and boring. I'd like to think the creative team is aiming for that distinct film noir style, but either they don't quite get there, or else they should have tried a different take. With some humor and joy, and perhaps a little less emotional distance, this show could've lifted me more, and piqued my interest in the story. 

Some performances are better than others, but only a few actors are able to emote what is necessary. Once I figured out who the characters were and how they all connected together, it became boring. I honestly didn't care, and it saddens me to say that. Act 1 of Bovell's script is better written than Act 2 (and that's true of the whole show: in every way, Act 1 is better than Act 2). But while there are weak narrative points here and there in the writing, I think that stronger, warmer performances might have made up for some of the script's faults, and brought out its good points.

The broader themes of marriage, love, and all of the inevitable, inherent difficulties that arise from long term sexual cohabitation are coldly and rudely on display here. These themes are powerful, meaty, mature and timeless. It is unfortunate that this production barely grazes the surface of this material.  Perhaps for the next mounting of Speaking in Tongues, we could have a little less of the icing, and a little more of the promised Cake.

(Speaking in Tongues runs at New York Theatre Workshop's 4th Street Theatre, 83 East 4th Street, between Second Avenue and Bowery, through November 20, 2010. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 3pm. All tickets are $18, and reservations can be made at or by calling 800.838.3006.)