South Coast Repertory's revival of "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" is no day at the beach, and not just because death, AIDS, homophobia, infidelity and cancer stalk the privileged precincts of Terrence McNally's Fire Island play.
Set on the wooden deck of a posh summer house, the production ought to take our breath away with an aura of beachfront luxury and natural beauty. The grandeur of the setting certainly dazzles the four people who have come to spend a Fourth of July weekend there.
Chloe marvels: "This is paradise . . . it's heaven." But we don't see it. The house looks cramped, a flimsy affair wedged like a bungalow at the back of SCR's small Second Stage. The bluish planking has room for a single lounge chair. The pool suggests a foot bath.
Anyone who saw "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" last August at the Mark Taper Forum would understand Chloe's reaction. The Taper production had frontage to die for. The house sprawled across the main stage like a layout in Architectural Digest. It had acres of gleaming blond wood and enough deck furniture for an ocean liner. You could have dived into the pool.
Here, everything is miniaturized to shoehorn the play into a postage-sized arena, sometimes with ridiculous results. Sally paints a seascape at an easel so tiny it seems like a toy. Sam takes a shower in a collapsible stall that might have been invented by Rube Goldberg.
We're closer to Far Rockaway than Fire Island on this set. In fact, the entire SCR production quickly assumes an unreal atmosphere. The lighting gives little hint of sun, though sun baths and sunburns are advertised. There is no blue sky. And the airless sensation of the great indoors roundly denies the purported sea breeze that keeps John's kite aloft.
But it's not just the physical design that turns this "Lips" into a toy play. The actors offer their own faulty contributions under the guiding hand of a director, Tim Vasen, who steers them only too willingly into the realm of pretense.
Except for Susan Cash's dizzy, vulnerable portrait of Chloe, a gibbering housewife who hides behind a funny smoke screen of Frenchified chatter "because it's too painful to think about what's really going on," the other roles either lack conviction, as played, or seem defined by shallow outlines.
Sally, whose gay brother, David, recently died of AIDS and left her the beach house, is a musically educated sophisticate with an artistic sensibility, feminist beliefs and guilty feelings. Karen Landry's portrayal comes off as troubled but bland.
Sam, who is Sally's husband and Chloe's brother, is a New Jersey building contractor with blue-collar prejudices, suburban tastes and an inkling that Sally has slept with Chloe's husband, John. Ron Boussom's Sam is devoutly working-class but that's all he is.
John, the admissions officer of a prep school, is shown to be an elitist control freak who condescends to everyone and won't let anyone get close to him. Nicholas Hormann plays the role at such a cold remove that he lacks bite.
How these couples ever managed to meet and marry, let alone survive till now, is anybody's guess. McNally's play never explains. And SCR's production keeps it murky.
* "Lips Together, Teeth Apart," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Ends May 29. $23-$33. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Susan Cash: Chloe Haddock
Ron Boussom: Sam Truman
Nicholas Hormann: John Haddock
Karen Landry: Sally Truman
A South Coast Repertory Second Stage production of a play by Terrence McNally. Directed by Tim Vasen. Scenic designer: Victoria Petrovich. Costume designer: Julie Keen. Lighting designer: Ashley York Kennedy. Sound designer: Garth Hemphill. Production manager: Michael Mora. Stage manager: Randall K. Lum.