In the new Theatre Q production of Terrence McNally's Lips Together, Teeth Apart, playing now through June 28, 2009 at Dragon Theatre in Palo Alto, two heterosexual couples are marooned for a lost 4th of July weekend on the gay enclave of Fire Island, circa 1991. Sally (Meredith Hagedorn) is a painter. She has inherited her dead brother David's beach house and she's not sure why. David has died of AIDS, and though the siblings were as close as a brother and sister can be at the end of either's life, Sally had always been uncomfortable with her brother's sexuality and circle. But here she is, standing before her easel, struggling, as she puts it, with "the arrogance of capturing the beauty of life with a few colors and a brush."
How much easier it is for McNally to capture the despair and emptiness of contemporary relationships with just four characters and three acts. This is a melancholy play to be sure, but you have to appreciate the skill with which McNally has rendered his players and the economy of the snapshots he gives us of them. When we need to know what his characters are thinking, they simply tell us. Take Sally. From her we learn that she is a bundle of self-doubt and fear -- for her failed pregnancies, for the fetus of uncertain future now growing inside her, for the well-being of a swimmer who had disrobed on the beach earlier that morning, given her a smile and a wave, and is now barely a speck on the horizon.
Sally's sister-in-law, Chloe (Mary Lou Torre), is no less troubled by her lot in life, but she refuses to play the victim, choosing instead to mask her fears with lots of noise and hyperactivity. And yet, Chloe is a lot less facile than her behavior would suggest. As full of it as she is with her incessant hostess shtick and nonstop chatter littered with high-school French, Chloe is surprisingly clear-eyed about the limits of veracity. The truth, she tells us, is more trouble than it's worth. This from a woman who thinks nothing of telling anyone who will listen about her sex life. Truth and candor, McNally seems to be saying, are not exactly the same thing.
Chloe's brother is Sally's husband, Sam (Jeffrey Hoffman). He's no day at the beach, either. Sam is a neurotic contractor, who may or may be not be doing well right now but is way too proud to admit anything that smells even vaguely of failure. He is also something of a crybaby, who suffers mightily when he gets a sliver in his toe, probably because he believes that this could be the open sore that will let the AIDS virus that's swimming in David's pool enter his bloodstream and kill him as dead as a Fire Island fairy. He and Sally are going through a "patch," he tells us. They'll get through it, he says, as much to convince himself as us, as long as there is no one else.
Which, of course, there is. Only one character left, so it must be Chloe's husband, John (Dale Albright), who hides behind his crossword puzzle, searching for the right words to fill into his little boxes while Sally ruminates on the meaning of the word "diminished." How did Sally find herself in a marriage with her lovable oaf of a husband? Why did she and John have a fling? And will it make any difference to her to learn that John's got the big C? Carefully, McNally answers only the questions he believes he must.
Adding to the sense of emotional claustrophobia is the handsome set by Ron Garparinetti. Under the direction of Rebecca Longworth, the actors frequently walk to the edges of the set and stage, as if to accentuate the sense of being hemmed in by their gay neighbors whose decks loom above Sally and company, and for whom this fishbowl exhibition of upper-middle-class hell must be riveting. We may never know why David left his house to his sister, but we certainly know why McNally set his drama there: so the straights can play the aberrants for a change.
If some of the aspects of Lips Together, Teeth Apart feel dated in 2009, what remains true are McNally's observations of the distances that exist between alleged intimates. The couples -- be they brother and sister, husbands and wives, or one-time lovers -- are at once connected to and alienated from each other. They are only truly adept at confessing their deepest secrets to the people who matter the least (the audience, a sexual partner who promises no future), but when it comes to speaking the truth to the ones they purport to love, McNally's couples are largely mute. Glib Chloe may have gotten it right after all.
Lips Together, Teeth Apart runs through June 28, 2009 at Dragon Theatre. For tickets and information, visit theatreq.org.