Terrence McNally’s dark comedy “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” unfolds slowly, in fits and starts, and is never emotionally engaging until the final moments. And in this production Andrea Martin shines, but perhaps too brightly, in a rip-roaring performance that overshadows the more subtle work by the rest of the cast, giving the play an unbalanced, uneven tone.
The story is simple and thin. The brother of Sally Truman (Roxanne Hart) has died of AIDS, leaving his beachside home on Fire Island to her. She arrives on the Fourth of July weekend to inspect the property with her husband, Sam (Nathan Lane), along with his sister Chloe Haddock (Martin), and her husband, John (John Glover). As the weekend unfolds, the couples explore and in part resolve their relationships.
These are odd couples, to say the least. John is a reserved New England preppy with an air of hauteur, while his wife is an up-from-the-streets housewife who spouts fractured French and is forever rehearsing for her next starring role in community theater.
Sally and Sam make an even stranger couple. He is an uncomplicated guy, the beer-drinking owner of a New Jersey construction company, while she is an ethereal, wispy presence, agonizing over her inability to capture the essence of the universe in her paintings.
Most of the revelations in the play, which concern extramarital affairs, infertility, terminal illness and homophobia, among other things, are delivered in an off-hand, understated manner, as the characters retreat into their private worlds of pain. The dramatic moments of the play are often abrupt and incomplete , leaving little but a residue of confusion.
While the story is paper-thin and the characterizations are often fragile, McNally’s gift for comedy rescues the play from tediousness.
The flashiest, most comic character is the brash Chloe, who talks non-stop while she passes out an endless series of drinks, hors d’oeuvres and unsolicited advice.
Martin’s natural gifts as a comedienne, including her sense of timing and physical grace, often overwhelm the more subtle facets of her character. She finds every ounce of humor in McNally’s sparkling dialogue, but is less successful in connecting with the other performers, at least until the play’s final moments.
Glover is strong as Chloe’s husband, but is not given much to work with. Lane is an excellent actor who is also underutilized; he gets the most out of the comic exchanges, but never breaks out of the one-note character. Hart seems even more constricted as the mysterious, bewildering Sally.
Director John Tillinger bears some responsibility for the lack of cohesion in the ensemble. While sets by John Lee Beatty work brilliantly here, the play may be better suited to smaller venues, such as the original Manhattan Theater Club site, than to larger houses like the Taper.