Silent 'Small Mouth Sounds' At Long Wharf Will Leave You Talking

Sit down, shut up and pay attention. It'll do you good.

One amusing aspect of Bess Wohl's "Small Mouth Sounds" — at the Long Wharf Theatre through Sept. 24 — is that it treats its characters in much the same way that theaters treat their audiences.

Jan, Ned, Rodney, Alicia, Joan and Judy are taking part in a five-day spiritual retreat away from the noise, distractions and traumas of their regular lives. As they enter and take their seats on the stage, they are instructed not to use their phones, not to bring food with them, and to avoid disturbing each other's concentration. It's easy to sit in the audience and relate.

"Small Mouth Sounds"' characters take a vow of silence. This is another way that the audience experience can be similar to that of the retreat. But having actors be so quiet is a new dynamic. Nobody is addressing the audience directly or speaking in a theatrical manner. "Small Mouth Sounds" is a voyeuristic experience, enhanced by Laura Jellinek's cage-like empty-room set design and Andrew Schneider's video projections of calm woodsy images seen through the windows of that cold, clinical indoor environment.

Silent theater works differently than silent film, or than those infuriating pop-song-scored wordless montages that end so many TV dramas. In the theater, your eyes can wander. You can savor the nuances. You can follow one character more intently than another. It's easy to be drawn into this world and to pay close attention throughout the show's 105 intermissionless minutes.

This new touring production of "Small Mouth Sounds" is directed, as was its well-received off Broadway one, by Rachel Chavkin (whose other notable New York credit last year was "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812").

The cast contains some faces that are familiar hereabouts, like Yale School of Drama grad Brenna Palughi, Ben Beckley (who played Larry in "Company" at Playhouse on Park in 2011) and two veterans of other Long Wharf shows: Orville Mendoza ("The Romance of Magno Rubio") and Socorro Santiago ("Macbeth 1969," "Italian American Reconciliation").

Everyone in the cast looks appropriately world-weary and bedraggled, particularly Palughi as a vulnerable young woman who's been going through a difficult break-up. Beckley, who has the downturned deadpan expression of a young Jeffrey Tambor combined with alert, penetrating eyes, anchors the show as Ned, a querulous, insecure guy who's getting his life back together after a series of alarming setbacks.

Everyone on stage has their own story. Some, like Ned's, are told to you straight-out in the few sections of the show where the characters actually speak. Most of the stories, though, are intimated rather than explicitly spelled out, gathered through clues and gestures. Orville Mendoza provides the disembodied, alternately calming and exasperating voice of the retreaters' guru-like teacher.

What really needs to be said about "Small Mouth Sounds" is that it's very funny. Yes, this is a downbeat, subdued, realistic drama about six troubled souls at crossroads in their lives. But co-existence and co-dependency can be constantly amusing. Some of the characters are comfortable with their appearance (including when nude — Edward Chin-Lyn as Rodney prances in the buff for several minutes). Others are more modest. Some laugh inappropriately. Some snore. Some sneak around in the night. Some are susceptible to bug bites. They all sit differently in their folding chairs and arrange their bed mats in different ways.

Wohl works hard to make sure "Small Mouth Sounds" is more than a clever concept. This is full-bodied low-volume entertainment, with some honest metaphysical insights that will have you talking as you leave the theater.

SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS plays through Sept. 24 at the Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m., with added matinees Sept. 9, 16 and 23 at 3 p.m. and Sept. 13 and 20 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $34.50 to $90.50. 203-787-4282 and longwharf.org.

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