Sally and Sam, and Chloe and John — America Ferrera and Michael Chernus, and Tracee Chimo and Austin Lysy — are a pair of couples vacationing in Fire Island during a sunny Fourth of July weekend in Lips Together, Teeth Apart. Being a play by Terrence McNally, the talk around the pool is frequently funny and ominously in tune with the times.
Two decades after McNally's play first made waves at Manhattan Theatre Club — with Swoosie Kurtz, Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski and Anthony Heald as the summering suburbanites — Lips Together, Teeth Apart returns to New York for its first major revival, courtesy of Second Stage and director Peter DuBois.
The result resembles a product of the time in which it was written, 1990, making it one of the first AIDS plays, although McNally interestingly makes his case with no gay characters ever being seen. They are, however, heard, via boisterous neighbors on either side of them.
The setting plays like the sunny side of the moon — a summerhouse in Fire Island, presumably the Pines, which Sally has inherited from her brother, an AIDS fatality. The couples languish poolside, afraid to go near the water for fear it may be tainted. Adultery's afoot, a cancer is spreading and a sister struggles with her brother's death. Yes, it's a comedy. "I guess that's his testament as a writer," says Lysy of McNally's ability to pull some well-needed humor from horror. "He can find so much humor in the situation."
"Terrence [has an] incredible understanding of how humans behave around discomfort and avoidance," chimes in Ferrera. "All four of us deal with things in very different ways. Most of us find curious and peculiar ways to keep going about life and having our own worlds, our own inner lives. If this play were a song, there'd never be one note being played at the same time.
"It's always a chord, with each character striking his or her own note.... There's happiness, there's sorrow, there's joy and yet there's someone on stage who is feeling the pain and showing something else. I think that makes it funny and often hard to watch."
McNally used the original actors — Lane, Baranski, Heald and Kathy Bates — to help mold the characters. When Bates couldn't commit to the MTC run, Swoosie Kurtz swooped in.
"I don't know Nathan personally, but you can definitely hear his voice in there," admits Chernus, taking over the Sam role. "I saw an interview where it seemed to say that the original cast at Manhattan Theatre Club had a hand in shaping and editing the play over the course of the production. Knowing his work, you can hear Nathan in Sam, but there's a lot of Jackie Gleason and Homer Simpson in there, too."
Chimo, who has had a breakout few years thanks to quirky and hilarious turns in plays like Bachelorette and Bad Jews, has no trouble summoning her inner Baranski. McNally has supplied some additional fun by making Chimo's character a community theatre diva who constantly runs musical numbers on tape, including a very emphatic "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile." She also delights in hearing the score of Annie, one she "loves," playing from a neighbor's yard. Too bad it's really the music from Gypsy.
"Sure, I can feel Christine in the character," the actress allows. "It's a fun part because she's over the top a little bit and rather theatrical. What's cool about Chloe is, whatever Terrence and Christine made together, it's very adaptable to another actress' music." "I don't think you could make it present day," says Lysy, "It's very specific in terms of time and place. My thought was that the fear and discomfort of these characters — with the notion of AIDS and the brother in proximity to large groups of gay men — I don't think you could place it anywhere else. It's rooted in the early '90s, before 'Will & Grace' was in the culture, before the general population was exposed in different ways to what homosexuality really is."
Ferrera sees the real value in doing a plainly dated piece. "I feel it is still incredibly affecting and moving, but I also don't think it's really a play about gays and AIDS. That's just the setting Terrence chose to use. What's so much more interesting is how the thing that's feared manifests itself in those who choose fear, who choose avoidance, who choose not to speak the truth. That will always be relevant."