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Entertainment & Arts

Review: ‘Small Mouth Sounds': Playwright Bess Wohl’s off-Broadway sleeper arrives at the Broad Stage

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Scene from “Small Mouth Sounds": Brenna Palughi, left, Ben Beckley, Edward Chin-Lyn and Connor Barrett at the Broad Stage.
(Ben Gibbs )
Theater Critic

Playwright Bess Wohl, who trained as an actor at the Yale School of Drama, has written a play that asks actors to do more than speak the speech trippingly on the tongue, as Hamlet advised the strolling players when they came to Elsinore.

“Small Mouth Sounds,” which opened Friday at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, is set at a silent retreat. Six characters in search of stillness arrive at a wellness center hoping to quiet the inner cacophony that has led them to sign up for a five-day break from their smartphones and small talk.

This might sound like recalcitrant material for a play, but just look at how Samuel Beckett in “Krapp’s Last Tape,” Peter Handke in “Kaspar” and Franz Xaver Kroetz in “Request Concert” have turned silence into excruciating eloquence.

Wohl’s method is broader. “Small Mouth Sounds” is a comedy with satiric bite. The main target is the comodified spirituality that has encouraged the thinking that inner peace, a birthright, is just a guru, mantra or self-help book away.

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There are moments of remarkable tenderness scattered throughout the play. But the writing lacks the psychological delicacy of Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation,” another work in which disparate strangers slowly let down their guards in a free-form therapeutic space.

“Small Mouth Sounds,” which is on a multi-city tour with this Ars Nova production directed by Rachel Chavkin, contains a surprising amount of sitcom zing for a play that became a critically touted off-Broadway sleeper. Perhaps some subtlety has been lost on the road. Fortunately, the characters provoke enough curiosity to keep us from wanting to flee as they writhe and decompress in the enforced hush of the retreat center (brought to life in all its meditative simplicity by the ingenious set designer Laura Jellinek).

As the enlightenment seekers boisterously arrive and settle in, we grow acquainted as they do. Their teacher (Orville Mendoza) remains unseen, but his words resound with the lulling cadences of a boutique prophet.

In a slow, accented voice eager to dispense pearls of patchouli-scented wisdom, he tells his charges, “Think of this retreat as a vacation from your habits. Your routines. Yourself. It is the best kind. Of vacation. Because after this. You don’t ever have to go back. To who you were.”

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Bearded Jan (Connor Barrett) has a friendly demeanor, though he cannot tolerate the mosquitoes that have singled him out or the incursions into his space by Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn), a handsome yoga instructor who always seems to be stretching a preternaturally flexible limb past someone’s head.

Joan (Socorro Santiago) and Judy (Cherene Snow), a lesbian couple going through a rough patch, are having difficulty putting aside the conflicts that have brought them to this institute in the woods in the first place. And Ned (Ben Beckley), a New Age nebbish, is distracted from his obsessive rigidity by Alicia (Brenna Palughi), an attractive woman whose crying jags and sloppy snacking hint at a chronic broken heart.

No one is without grief, illness or psychological distress. (Even the retreat center teacher is in the middle of a crisis, which is why he keeps interrupting his talk to take forbidden phone calls.) But discovering what each character is specifically suffering from can be surprising.

In a play in which conversation occurs in fugitive bursts, much of the information is transmitted through body language. Loss, loneliness and physical pain are communicated through faces, breath patterns and collapsing postures. The audience, like a retreat participant, is forced to intuit what has yet to be disclosed in a series of encounters that keep rambunctiously shifting from the meeting room to the shared sleeping accommodations to the lake, where nudity is optional.

Ned is given one of the play’s more extensive monologues in a scene in which he reveals his own Job-like struggles. His agonies have opened the door to a different existence. He volunteers now for Earthwatch and is grateful for being on a path of self-discovery. But he can’t help wondering whether it’s noble to be seeking serenity in a world that is destroying itself.

Wohl, who had a small success with “Barcelona” at the Geffen Playhouse in 2016, returns to this point through the teacher, who tries to impress upon his pupils that suffering, the inescapable fact of life, is what unites us. Yet close to a breakdown himself, he can only ask the group not to be like all the other students who have passed through the retreat center and returned home to their old ways. He cries out, more in desperation than exhortation, “Change. Somebody. Please. Change.”

“Small Mouth Sounds” can seem a little too carefully worked out in places, as though the playwright has already figured out her philosophy and is eager to impose the truth of it like a god with a wicked sense of humor. Death is the ultimate reality, suffering is inextricably bound up with living and anyone who claims to have the answer is conning you.

Nothing to argue with here, but the characters, who are used at times like comic pawns, aren’t always in on the jokes. Gag setups and punchlines are not especially generous to the objects of ridicule. Some of the more mechanical aspects of the comedy diminish the work’s perceptiveness.

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Wohl, to her credit, makes room for some unforeseen connections. Unexpected friendships arrive, and in the unpredictable fluidity of shared silence, resentments melt away in mutual recognitions that are beyond the reach of words.

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‘Small Mouth Sounds’

Where: The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Jan 28

Cost: Starting at $45

Info: www.thebroadstage.org or (310) 434-3200

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes, no intermission

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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