Pirandello called his 1921 play “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” In her 2015 work “Small Mouth Sounds,” Bess Wohl edits that, giving us six characters simply in search — and the last thing they’re looking for is that notorious wordsmith, an author.
The play, which is being given a pristine area premiere by SpeakEasy Stage Company (through Feb. 2), is set during a five-day silent retreat presided over by an unseen — but hardly unheard — guru whose ministrations are a hodge-podge of Eastern mysticism, Western bromides, honking head cold and just plain pique. Clearly, the six souls endeavoring to use her as a GPS on their journeys across anguish will have to walk the inward walk rather than listen to the outside talk.
Certainly, if you are not Marcel Marceau, there is something slightly obdurate in setting out to create a play of very few words. As playwright Wohl acknowledges in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “There was a part of me that really enjoyed the perversity of trying to make a play where people don’t speak, and what that would be like. It was all a great experiment.”
But as the SpeakEasy staging proves, it’s an experiment that, given deft direction and expressive physical acting, can work. In fact, the lack of constant, obfuscating conversation underlines both the raw emotions of Wohl’s characters and the hilarious awkwardness of their near-wordless interaction. The silence, which alternately soothes and bristles, also allows the audience to pick from a plate rather than be spoon-fed the plot.
When we fist meet the six, they are arriving for the retreat, luggage and informational packets in hand. First up is the enigmatic Jan, seemingly engrossed in his inductees’ brochure. Second to appear in the light-wood-lined three-quarter round (designed by Cristina Todesco) is Rodney, a hunky, somewhat self-satisfied yoga instructor who showcases his practice on YouTube. He knows to take his shoes off and immediately assumes a yoga pose rather than flopping in his folding chair.
Next is the nervous, easily annoyed Ned — who turns out to be a little like the Biblical Job trying to survive the boils and the locusts by way of a wellness retreat. Ned, as troubled by climate change as he is by elusive enlightenment, is the only retreat goer allowed a long monologue, in which he flounders toward a key thematic observation that “I mean, maybe we shouldn’t be at peace, and just sitting around breathing, because the world is – like, f---ed, so — sorry.”
Partners Joan and Judy turn up together, whispering furiously about whose fault it was that they took a wrong turn somewhere on their way to this rural, meditative idyll. Last to arrive — well into the unseen Teacher’s introduction, a cornucopia of fables and rules — is Alicia, a busily flustered, attractive young woman dragging loads of luggage, a bag of snacks, loudly piping head phones and a cell phone she can’t stop jabbing at. Even in the absence of talk, Alicia makes noise.
Over the next few birdsong-infused, mosquito-infested mornings and uncomfortable nights with familiar or unfamiliar roommates, we get to know — and feel for — these people as they seek to know, or reinvent, themselves. “Think of this retreat as a vacation from your habits,” the Teacher advises. “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.” Perhaps, it is implied, the students will learn to speak in ponderous fragments. In any event, the instructor adds, there will be no refunds.
The audience, at least, will not want one, because “Small Mouth Sounds” is not only unique but, in its breaking down of individual defenses, quite piquant, and, in the breaking down of the increasingly un-Zen and unfiltered guru, very funny. I am not sure whether the flaky, here vaguely Teutonic Teacher is meant to seem as bogus as Marianna Bassham, both her small and her large mouth sounds rendered live from offstage, makes her. But the combination of banality, authoritarianism and self-interest certainly worked for me. As the Teacher cautions, sufferers seek relief in various placebos, including sex, drugs, alcohol and food and don’t count those out here. Why not make the Teacher one?
Director M. Bevin O'Gara treats the other characters, albeit not without mining their pain and foibles for humor, more tenderly. And the actors, most of whom are allotted no more than a few lines, turn body language and charades into a sort of silent dance of reaching out and letting go. The Teacher may be full of yesterday’s incense, but that doesn’t mean this business of breathing in and out, communing with nature and one another while keeping your trap shut, is. And an accomplished SpeakEasy cast ably communicates both the clumsiness and the bravery in trying.
Barlow Adamson is a touchingly unselfconscious Jan, revealing both his personal tragedy and his plethora of bug bites to Celeste Oliva’s slowly unwinding Judy, temporarily estranged from Kerry A. Dowling’s earthy Joan and responding to Jan’s offering by sharing her stash of medical marijuana. Nael Nacer’s at first persnickety Ned, troubled by so many deep apprehensions, relaxes into his attraction to Gigi Watson’s sexy bull-in-a-china-shop of an Alicia. She, however, is painfully on the rebound and more inclined toward Sam Simahk’s Rodney, who spends his time buffing up a pocked veneer of sensitive machismo.
Of course, there are no miracle recoveries at the end of Wohl’s mute holiday — though there are balms, tentative friendships and one very poignant surprise. There is also, toward the end of the retreat, as Nacer’s Ned gamely tries to improvise his way through a fire ritual about which he is given no clue, a perfect, sidesplitting metaphor for the absolutely ridiculous courage of being human.
SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of "Small Mouth Sounds" runs through Feb. 2.