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Small Mouth Sounds

Brad Heberlee, Zoë Winters, Max Baker, Babak Tafti, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, and Marcia DeBoni

                                          By David Schultz

Last spring Ars Nova unveiled playwright Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, playing at the tiny space with just 99 seats. Running for just over a month, this well received production came and went under the radar for most theatergoers. Lucky you…this gently moving treatise on the human condition has transferred uptown to the somewhat larger Linney Courtyard Theater which seats 199.

Upon entering the theater, guided by the ushers, you enter a long rectangular open space. Three long rows of seats lie on opposite sides of the floor. On the far side of the empty stage stands a raised platform where six chairs are placed. High above the central center space, nature videos are displayed as the sounds of crickets and katydids vie for aural space, co-mingled with the soundscape of rain and distant thunder roiling underneath.

No playbills are handed out at the outset of the production; they are given as you leave the theater. Whether this is the writer’s or director’s idea, it works in the play’s favor. No one, expect for one character, is ever named, the playbill lists the names, so you have to connect all the dots, it is up to the viewer to ascertain and keep track of everyone that come into view during the 100 intermissionless minutes.

The setting; a rural Vermont retreat, a new age revelatory experience is in store for the six lost, wounded souls that have signed up for the event.  One by one, this disparate group enters the platform area and takes their seats tentatively. 


Max Baker, Babak Tafti, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Marcia DeBonis, and Zoë Winters

First to enter, Jan (Max Baker) a sad eyed melancholy bloke, clutching a framed photo, Judy (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and Joan (Marcia DeBonis) a lesbian couple, one is suffering from a form of cancer, Ned (Brad Heberlee) a thin, wiry, nerdy sort with a knit cap that clings tightly to his head, Rodney (Babak Tafti) a muscular serene yoga instructor, and Alicia (Zoe Winters) a 20 something millennial, from the city, running late to the session.

The group is greeted and gets a thorough introduction to the week ahead by the leader of the event with overhead speakers. This guru/teacher (Jojo Gonzalez) is never seen, as he lays out the framework for what emotional catharses may lie ahead for the group. He lays out the ground rules for the members as well as divulges a strange, somewhat uplifting zen-like tale about a pair of frogs. His story becomes more sinister with his oddly calming voice edging toward an unexpected climax. 

The remainder of the play exposes the pain and inner turmoil of all of these people thrown together for a higher purpose. The major rule that must not be broken - no one may speak during his or her tenure at the event. All verbal communication must be displayed through hand gestures, eye contact, and the sheer loud sound of silence that can, and will speak for each of them on their journey.  Each of the group is paired up in two; Jan and Alicia, Rodney and Ned, Joan and Judy. The early scenes posit each couple getting ready for bed as they camp out, eager to explore what may occur during the week ahead. At one point all six characters are onstage, each performing their pre-bedtime rituals, the audiences eyes dart back and forth with each couple, much transpires within this scene, and the almost rhythmic timing of the scene sets the entire play in motion. 


Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Max Baker (photos by Ben Arons).

Much, if not all, of the sounds that emanate from the production are the sounds of people eating, lugging backpacks, suitcases dropping to the floor, breathing, sighing, and sound designer Stowe Nelson wondrously evokes the plethora of sounds. Only one person breaks through the no-sound barrier. That would be Ned…he stands alone at the lip of the stage midpoint and discusses his emotional rollercoaster of a life with the guru listening in on the sound system. His almost Job-like tale dovetails nicely with this sad-sack character. All the other group members connect wordlessly. The miracle and sly conceit of the play is that even though very few actual words are uttered, one gets a very real sense of what these greatly troubled souls are experiencing and saying to each other. Not unlike a Rorschach test, the actors bounce off the audience, as the audience bounces right back to the actors. Suddenly, if you are attuned to the immersive environment and the aural and visual clues accumulate exponentially, the play does create much sound and fury. The meditative resonance that endures as the evening reaches its climax is both amusing and achingly sad. The takeaway sense that these six souls have experienced life-changing prisms of revelation during their weeklong stay may fade away, quickly going back to the same routine, same life pattern cycles that preceded their retreat session stings deeply. 

Playing at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street

Running through September 25th


ticket central   212- 279-4200