Exploring Love and Truth in “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” at SU Drama

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Max Adoff (Sam), Natalie Oliver (Sally), and Carl Fisk (John) in the SU Drama production of Lips Together, Teeth Apart. Photographer Michael Davis.

“Lips Together, Teeth Apart”

Who: Syracuse University Drama

Where: Storch Theater – 820 E. Genesee St. Syracuse, NY

When: Feb. 20 – March 1

Tickets: $17-$19, student tickets available

Review by Sarah Hope

With an ambitious production of Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart, Syracuse U Drama transports the audience to Fire Island, where two couples explore the nature of love and truth.

The sun rises over the sprawling wooden deck of a beach house. The centerpiece is a real, shimmering swimming pool. A man leans over the side, testing the water. Three sliding glass doors line the deck. At each end we can see into a bedroom and, in the center, a kitchen, where a woman is drinking coffee. To the right, a man reads a newspaper on a lawn chair. Downstage, a woman is painting, her canvas hidden from the audience. Above the house, a blue sky is projected. The light is soft and slow — it is morning, and each character meditates in his or her own world.

It’s hard to believe that this is scenic designer Katie Tulin’s first mainstage production. Together with assistant professor Alexander Koziara’s lighting design, her design situates the audience immediately in the warmth and milieu of a Fourth of July retreat to Fire Island. Her gorgeous, open set places the audience just off the deck, almost in the ocean, allowing us to feel we are both members of the party and silent observers.

Bryn Dolan (Chloe), Natalie Oliver (Sally), Max Adoff (Sam), and Carl Fisk (John) in the SU Drama production of Lips Together, Teeth Apart. Photographer Michael Davis.

Bryn Dolan (Chloe), Natalie Oliver (Sally), Max Adoff (Sam), and Carl Fisk (John) in the SU Drama production of Lips Together, Teeth Apart. Photographer Michael Davis.

McNally’s drama, punctuated with humor, tells the story of two straight couples who spend a weekend in the gay beachside community of Fire Island. The beach house has been left to Sally (Natalie Oliver) by her gay brother David, who has recently died from complications of AIDS. Sally’s husband, brash and homophobic Jersey-bred Sam (Max Adoff), is uncomfortable but pleased with the inheritance. His sister Chloe (Bryn Dolan) and her husband John (Carl Fisk) have joined them for the holiday weekend. Chloe is a doting and energetic housewife to John, a college admissions director and consummate stuffed shirt.

As the quiet and troubled Sally, Oliver was stunning in moments of reflection. As she paints, it is hard to take your eyes off of her. In dialogue, her connection with her fellow actors is remarkable. But she becomes stiff and overacts when a high degree of emotion is required. Her performance felt uneven at times, but when she is strong, she is impossible to ignore.

Adoff, on the other hand, shines brightly during moments of high emotion. Sam reveals his fears and insecurities in an explosive monologue at the end of the first act, and Adoff’s delivery is riveting.

Natalie Oliver (Sally) and Carl Fisk (John) in the SU Drama production of Lips Together, Teeth Apart. Photographer Michael Davis.

Natalie Oliver (Sally) and Carl Fisk (John) in the SU Drama production of Lips Together, Teeth Apart. Photographer Michael Davis.

Still, both Adoff and Dolan seemed to anticipate their lines and movements, though director Geraldine Clark’s blocking was clever and natural enough. Once their energy settled in the second act, the pair becomes great physical and emotional scene partners.

Adoff also cultivates a strong chemistry with Fisk. In another emotional scene, the tension between these two polar opposites erupts into a physical fight. The Jersey boy draws the monster out of the entitled college administrator. In his journey from pompous ass to reticent fool to doomed sufferer, Fisk delivered stoicism, anger and despair with equal grace.

The timing and delivery of McNally’s layered dialogue proves difficult at times for all. McNally weaves conversations and monologues together in a surreal sort of composition and choreography, altering meaning and drawing connections by juxtaposing words and intermixing contexts. The moments when this worked are a credit to Clark’s direction, like at the end of the second act, when John and Sally dramatically remove a splinter from Sam’s foot while Chloe dances to Guys & Dolls‘ “Take Back the Mink.”

Together, the SU Drama students pull the audience along a bumpy road pockmarked with explorations of love, death and truth,

Carl Fisk (John), Bryn Dolan (Chloe), Max Adoff (Sam), and Natalie Oliver (Sally) in the SU Drama production of Lips Together, Teeth Apart. Photographer Michael Davis.

Carl Fisk (John), Bryn Dolan (Chloe), Max Adoff (Sam), and Natalie Oliver (Sally) in the SU Drama production of Lips Together, Teeth Apart. Photographer Michael Davis.

successfully delivering us to the end. This play is long — two hours and 45 minutes, with two 10 minute intermissions — and its last act feels the longest. Each character has made a journey, but the it ends heavily, with fireworks, flag-waving and uncertainty. As I stood to exit into the cold, the man in front of me said all that was left to say. Leaning over to his wife, he muttered, “Huh. Maybe we should rent a beach house.”

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