‘Small Mouth Sounds’: the power of silence

smallmouthsoundsAfter a test run at Ars Nova last year, Bess Wohl’s wonderful comedy-drama “Small Mouth Sounds” has just started a two-month commercial engagement off Broadway.

It’s as much an experience as a play because of Rachel Chavkin’s immersive production in which the audience surrounds six very different New Yorkers attending a spiritual retreat outside the city.

Video and sound designers Andrew Schneider and Stowe Nelson get us in the mood before the action starts with nature images on the walls and peaceful surround sounds. It feels like we have stepped out of New York City and into a calm and soothing rural place.

We have to suss out who the six people are and what makes them tick mostly through facial expressions and other visual clues because they have taken a vow of silence during the week-long retreat. It is a tribute to the acute and subtle skills of the six actors — Max Baker, Babak Tafti, Brad Heberlee, Marcia DeBonis, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, and Zoe Winters — that we bond so deeply with the (mostly) silent people they play.

smallmouthsounds1Everyone has arrived with a lot of emotional baggage, of course. A lesbian couple is dealing with the cancer treatments one of them is undergoing. An older man carries a picture of what we assume is his dead child. A late arriving young woman is harried and her type-A nature comes through loud and clear. A young-ish man, who never removes his hat, clearly wants to do everything by the book and get the most out of his week. A handsome Yoga practitioner shows off his form (in more ways than one) and seems aloof from the other guests.

During the course of a little more than 90 minutes we observe the characters in their spartan rooms (where they sleep on mats) and in walks through the nearby woods, and a dip in the lake. We also share sessions with their unseen guru (Jojo Gonzalez) where his talk is both profound and slightly silly. These scenes sometimes reminded me of the Esalen Institute opening of “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” which also managed to be respectful of people looking for answers while gently satirizing the sometimes extreme ways that they do it.

Although we get to choose who we watch, Chavkin and designer Laura Jellinek deftly guide us to key bits of action through slight shifts in the lighting. We know that we will never see everything that’s going on, but that only reinforces the feeling that we are a seventh person on retreat with these fascinating characters.

In an age of endless distraction and chatter, “Small Mouth Sounds” reminds us of the power of simplicity and the ways that only a live performance can connect with an audience. I strongly urge you to visit The Pershing Square Signature Center between now and the end of September for this unique play.

(For more information, go to www.smallmouthsounds.com)

Joe Meyers