Small Mouth Sounds at Long Wharf in New Haven

 “Welcome to Katz Reviews. This is Ed Katz of Katnip Marketing- marketing consultant by day; theater critic by night- bringing my weekly review segment, Katz Reviews, here for you on WICC 600.

I was at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven as they celebrated opening night for their new season. Long Wharf has been around since 1965 and over 30 of their productions have transferred to Broadway and Off-Broadway, winning Pulitzers and Tonys, for plays like ‘Wit,’ ‘The Shadow Box,’ ‘American Buffalo’ and ‘The Gin Game.’ Serious stuff!

They’re kicking off this season with a show that transferred to them from Off-Broadway, playwright Bess Wohl’s award-winning 2015 play, ‘Small Mouth Sounds.’

Inspired by the playwright’s experiences at several spiritual retreats where, she admits, she wasn’t sure if she was “on a spiritual journey or a playwriting one,” the play is set at such a retreat where everyone is expected to maintain silence for the duration of the week.

 Cast of ‘Small Mouth Sounds’; photo: T. Charles Erickson

Clearly, as a work of theater, that poses several challenges- for the playwright, the director, the actors and, also, for the audience! Kudos to director Rachel Chavkin, who also directed ‘The Great Comet’ that just ended on Broadway, for her expert staging that keeps this mostly silent play so lively.

Six characters meet each other at the retreat in silence- for the most part anyway. Is there dialogue? Yes- some characters cheat. There are also several times when the spiritual leader- who we only hear- imparts his teachings to the “retreaters.” And there is one powerful yet funny scene where a character, expertly played by Ben Beckley, is allowed to ask the teacher one brief question- though he can’t help but discuss the incredibly painful journey that brought him to the retreat. As he details it, his pain and loss are so powerful that he says of his also having short term memory loss, “Maybe that’s a good thing.”

In fact, every one of the six characters is dealing with pain and/or loss- though it isn’t as readily apparent with some of them, at first.

Most of the cast is stellar-  Cherene Snow, Brenna Palughi, Connor Barrett and particularly Edward Chin-Lyn as Rodney (a character my wife noted seemed inspired by Rodney Yee), a suave, physically fit yoga teacher with a popular series of videos. Also special mention for Orville Mendoza as the unseen teacher, who provides a fascinating combination of wisdom, hypocrisy, humor- and even some pathos as he imparts his teachings- while suffering some personal issues himself.

 Ben Beckley, left & Edward Chin-Lyn; photo: T. Charles Erickson

Writer Bess Wohl has achieved a great feat here: she allows us to see these kinds of retreats can be life-enriching even while simultaneously being worthy of mocking and scorn. The frustrated teacher at one point yells at his students, “People- you need to change or I am wasting my time here!” showing it really is up to each of us to make that change.

So, how was it?

“I loved it. Real theater!” That was what one audience member exclaimed to her friend just after the performance ended. After deep contemplation, I liked it a lot, too! It’s thought-provoking and funny and I give ‘Small Mouth Sounds’ 4 stars out of 5. It runs at Long Wharf through September 24th.

Catch my reviews right here this time each week and on my Facebook page and website, KatzReviews.com, where you will find all my WICC 600 reviews.

This is Ed Katz talking theater for WICC 600!”

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