Tuesday, February 21, 2012

“Speaking in Tongues”: Terrific Ensemble in a Flawed Production

      Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues at the Playhouse’s Shelterhouse stage starts with a real coup de theatre.  Two couples, contemplating infidelity, begin assignations in hotel rooms.  They’re in two different locations, but it’s the same set and they say the same lines to each other, but with completely different intonations.  As the first act progresses and those four characters interact with one another, the writing deepens, but rather than turning into a more serious version of Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, it turns into a mystery and that was when Neil and I realized that
this was a stage version of Lantana, an intriguing Australian movie from a decade ago.  Neil had said before it started, “what’s this about,” and I didn’t know much beyond a quick perusal of the program, so I replied, “it’s the same writer as Lantana so I guess it’ll be like that.”  Duh – though it never linked the two works in any of this production’s publicity.

Amy Warner, Henny Russell, R. Ward Duffy, and Bruce Cromer
Credit: Sandy Underwood
      The acting is exemplary with Amy Warner, Henny Russell, and Bruce Cromer all playing two different characters, while R. Ward Duffy becomes a shape shifter in playing three characters.  That shouldn’t be a surprise since this is an extremely experienced and accomplished cast of actors, though they are a decade too old to completely pull off the characters in the first act because the main concern for one couple is about trying to have a baby.  Lantana was intriguing because it was set in Australia and the actors had a different look, bearing, and rhythm from either an American Hollywood or independent cast.  

      Thankfully, this production doesn’t use Australian accents, which could have made comprehension difficult for the audience, but there also isn’t any reference to the location, so a sense of texture is lost.  I wish that the director, Michael Evan Haney, had set it in Louisiana or Seattle or somewhere that had more of an idiosyncratic sense.  It also might have lent a context for the socio-economic differences (and tacit conflicts) between the characters.  It might have also pushed the costuming and props a little more so that they weren’t so generic.  The costumes and wigs didn’t quite pull off the mid-1990s.  Period pieces that are set in the recent past are always more difficult than those set further back in history because an audience assumes things weren’t so different than the present.  However, it’s significant because cell phones weren’t common back then and the climax hinges on a character having to use a pay phone and not thinking that unusual.

      The lighting is fluid, vital, and specific in terms of defining location and reflecting the characters’ moods.  The direction is excellent in pacing the production.  The end of the second act drags a little during a long, final monologue and a scene that is played twice, though it didn’t need to do so.  That, however, is the writing and both Haney and Cromer do all they can to move that section along.  Speaking in Tongues is well worth seeing for its original story, told very cleverly, and presenting a pretty great cast.

Speaking in Tongues continues through Sunday, March 4.

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