Bess Wohl’s play Small Mouth Sounds returns to the stage.
My friend D’s first retreat was a dive into the deep end. It was ten days long, silent, held at a famous meditation center, and led by a renowned teacher. On her first evening, after orientation, she returned to her room, lay down on her bed, and began to drift off to sleep. Then she discovered a deer tick on her body. Panic set in, but not from fear of Lyme disease. Could she manage to locate tweezers and a first aid kit somewhere in the Zendo without breaking the freshly imposed silence?
Spiritual retreats seem a topic ripe for comic exploitation. Seeking … something, folks who don’t know one another are thrust into monastic discipline and imposed camaraderie for a compressed period of time. In my own experience, retreats follow a pattern. There’s the first morning feeling: What the fuck have I got myself into? And the last evening feeling: What a special group of people this is! And in between, the constant judgments about who’s annoying and unworthy; the instabonding with roommates you’ll never see again (and if you do, they won’t remember you); and the encounters with stalwarts from central casting, like the one who weeps spontaneously for no apparent reason, the one who can’t stay off e-mail, the one getting over a bad divorce, the one who always arrives late, the one who tries to (or is asked to) depart, the one who wears craft clothing, the one who sits on the floor in perfect full lotus when everyone else is in chairs. There’s moderate outdoor activity, a repressed undercurrent of sexual and romantic curiosity, the required holding-hands-in-a-circle moment and, of course, the gatherings during which a teacher imparts wisdom. All of it begs to be staged.
Bess Wohl’s astounding play Small Mouth Sounds, which opened this week at the Pershing Square Signature Center, has all those moments and more. It doesn’t involve deer ticks, though there are plenty of mosquitoes in the damp forest outside the Zendo—think bleached wood beams and tidy shoe racks—where it’s set. During its 110 minutes, there’s very little dialogue for the six on-stage characters . How could there be? It’s a silent retreat. Instead, the script comprises enormously detailed stage directions. A teacher—always offstage, and heard only over a mike, like a Buddhist Big Brother—owns most of the play’s lines, and, except when he sneezes or hectors or (oops) has to take a phone call, they are thrillingly banal: “Close your eyes and return to the stillness of who … you … are.” His cryptic pronouncements have no meaning or sense: “I dreamt I was a lawn mower … mowing a lawn,” and he freaks out the students with the mother of all retreat parables, about a frog who lives in a well and journeys to see the ocean—then drops dead. Excuse me?
The phenomenal cast build their characters and articulate their performances with carefully calibrated facial modulations, body language, and movement, helped by calculated details in their costumes and props. (Turquoise fingernail extensions, baggy white undershorts, junk-food snacks in a Trader Joe’s shopping bag, a child’s scuffed-up backpack.) It rains a lot. They are paired incompatibly in tents. They are mostly miserable and don’t get along. But they have their moments. Each, as we come to discover, seeks release from some deep, private pain. One Candide-like character, a guy who’s been through a ten-car pileup on the freeway of life, has the play’s only soliloquy, in which he asks, Why seek peace in a world we’ve wrecked and that’s too late to save? The others get a line once in a blue moon, usually just a word or two, “Good-bye” or “Sorry” or the bitchiest zinger of all under these circumstances: “There’s no more lunch.”
Small Mouth Sounds walks a razor’s edge between parody and profundity. Part of the play’s impressive cleverness is that it knows the members of the audience—like any audience in the theater—are on their own silent retreat, there to escape routine and to return to the world in some intangible way enhanced. That happens. “You are not alone”—a pabulum mantra if ever there were—the teacher intones as all the characters, save one, leave the stage. We want to believe that. But the play itself argues back, acknowledging the vast indifference of the universe as that solitary figure, in the dimming light, embraces a tender relic. We were crying by then, even though Small Mouth Sounds is funny as hell.
Jeff Seroy is senior vice president at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and a correspondent for the Daily.