BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | There is something so beautiful about silence. And silence on stage can also be courageous, powerful, and highly theatrical. That certainly is the case with the terrific new play “Small Mouth Sounds” by Bess Wohl, now getting its world premiere at Ars Nova.
The play takes place at a silent retreat as six participants seek enlightenment… without talking. That doesn’t mean the stories aren’t rich and compelling. Through body language and the sighs and other noises of the play’s title, we get to know these people intimately in all their quirky seeking. At the same time, the play is a gentle satire of the culture and business of spiritual enlightenment and a trenchant view of the dynamics — both sexual and competitive — that arise in such situations.
The audience sits in rows on either side of the action and so, much like the characters, must confront one another in silence for the 100-minute journey. With the actors sometimes inches away, it’s impossible not to be caught up in this world.
The power of silence is palpable, particularly compared to too much chatter
Director Rachel Chavkin does a splendid job of creating the world of the retreat and gets distinct performances out of each member of the cast. The cast — Jessica Almasy, Erik Lochtefeld, Sakina Jaffrey, Babak Tafti, Brad Heberlee, and Marcia DeBonis — are all outstanding, as is JoJo Gonzalez as the unseen guru who addresses the participants over a loudspeaker. One of the elements of this production that is so affecting is the dichotomy between what is heard but not seen and that which is seen but not heard. It is this simple theatricality and incisive character development that makes “Small Mouth Sounds” easily one of the best new plays of the year.
If, as we rush into the next big political season, you’ve yet to experience “Clinton fatigue,” then by all means nip over to New World Stages to catch “Clinton: The Musical.” That will lay you out flat through 2016, and that’s not the half of it.
This is a rehash of the scandals of the Clinton White House years in song and story. The producers are seemingly oblivious to the fact that the world has been bored with Monica Lewinsky for years, and Linda Tripp and Kenneth Starr are largely forgotten, rendering the show neither topical nor clever. The inept book by Paul Hodge and Michael Hodge is full of bad sketch jokes, and the forgettable music and lyrics by Paul Hodge are the kind of low-grade Off-Off Broadway tripe that is rendered more insufferable by how dated the subject matter is.
The conceit is that Bill Clinton is two halves of the same person — one good, one bad. He’s played by two actors, and Hillary is caught up in it all as a conniving operative. But that’s not all: Starr is, for some reason, addicted to S&M. Newt Gingrich is a lecherous glutton, and Lewinsky is a shallow, codependent mess, that last perhaps more verisimilitude than the creators intended.
Kerry Butler as Hillary and Veronica J. Kuehn as Monica are both astonishingly talented musical performers and provide the only pleasure in the evening. The rest of the cast spends the evening mugging. These are the kinds of jobs actors book to qualify for health insurance, not to contribute to the theatrical canon.
Ultimately, the target audience for this seems to be the same as “50 Shades: The Musical” and “Silence: The Musical,” which attempt to make a virtue of self-conscious idiocy and risible sex jokes. “Clinton: The Musical,” however, doesn’t work as either camp or satire, but does makes those other two shows look like sophisticated musical theater.
Politics and social division in Great Britain from 20 years ago provide the central conflict in David Hare’s “Skylight,” now getting a Broadway revival. Like “Clinton: The Musical,” the dated material mutes the dramatic impact, and while it has some galvanizing moments, its polemics are often forced, robbing the characters of humanity.
Comparisons to Shaw are inevitable, and indeed Hare’s play is in a long tradition of social commentary in 20th century British drama that also includes John Osborne and Terence Rattigan. However, particularly in the second act, long arguments about the impact of income inequality in post-Thatcher England are as manipulative — and tedious — as any Shavian diatribe.
Tom is a wealthy restaurateur who had an affair with the much-younger Kyra. When Tom’s wife finds out about the affair, Kyra leaves. At the opening of the play, the wife has now died, and Tom shows up at Kyra’s down-at-heels flat to try to rekindle the relationship. All indications are that despite the age difference and the history — which is meted out in revelations that often feel like characters are reminding each other of events for the benefit of the audience rather than organic communication — the affair may be rekindled.
But then politics and Kyra’s new social consciousness run into Tom’s established, insular sense of privilege and entitlement, and it all falls apart. As with the best Shaw, the political arguments in this modern “Pygmalion” are well structured and often intriguing, but they force the characters into arguments that don’t feel the way real people interact.
Even given this, Carey Mulligan as Kyra is outstanding. She manages a kind of fierceness and fragility that is consistently interesting, even in some of the more implausible moments. Bill Nighy as Tom is idiosyncratic and explosive. His performance is highly mannered, and it’s often hard to see the commanding person who built a successful business. That may be intentional; he is out of his element in Kyra’s squalid flat. Nighy conveys the egoism and conflict of the character, but his performance suffers when the character becomes a mere mouthpiece for the author’s politics.
Director Stephen Daldry negotiates the dynamics adroitly, and it’s to his credit that the production works as well as it does. Still, while the drama’s tension lies in seeing Tom out of his element and destabilized as a result, we never get a glimpse of the man Kyra fell in love with and that’s a miss.
The remarkable set by Bob Crowley and intelligent lighting by Natasha Katz create the world Kyra has chosen. If only the rest of the production were as detailed and nuanced, it would be a more satisfying evening.
SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS| Ars Nova, 511 W.54th St. | Through Apr. 25: Mon.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m. | $35 at ovationtix.com or 866-811-4111 | 90 mins., no intermission
CLINTON: THE MUSICAL | New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St. | Mon., Wed.-Sat 8 at p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $75-$95 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6210 | 90 mins., no intermission
SKYLIGHT | John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $60-$149 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6210 | Two hrs., 20 mins., with intermission