Scribe Kevin Elyot is no Pinter, but that hasn’t stopped Mark Brokaw from over- (or possibly under-) directing this irony-laden Brit import (which premiered at London’s Royal Court in 2001) as if every stilted moment were momentous, every arch line of dialogue profound. Shorn of its pretensions, “Mouth to Mouth” is a wry, mournful study of how easily a friendship can be destroyed — in this case, by an act of selfishness by a man who can’t afford to lose even a single friend. The New Group ensemble sparkles aplenty, employing a snappy comedic delivery to keep the raw emotions at bay.
A technical taskmaster, Elyot uses a clean line to tell a concise story. Frank (the marvelous David Cale) has AIDS, and, since one of his eyes has just popped out, things don’t look good. “They said it should do the trick,” he says of a medical procedure. “But I can tell by the way they are with me that it’s not quite going according to plan.”
Frank’s doctor, a theatrical diva in Andrew Polk’s insouciant perf, considers himself a friend. But this narcissistic physician is wrapped up in his own troubles. His lover, as it happens, was recently run over by a bus. (“A bright red double-decker! How can you not see a bus!”)
To be fair to the good doctor, Frank is afraid to be frank. He hints at revelations he never comes across with and hides from the truth behind a verbal stutter that goes beyond annoying.
Laura (the luminous Lisa Emery) is a far more understanding and devoted friend. Although she’s hypercritical of everyone else, she takes Frank into her family, giving him the unconditional love he craves. But by the end of the play, when the rapidly deteriorating Frank really needs her, Laura has become a shadow of her once vibrant self, rendered inarticulate by grief.
The killing irony is that Frank is largely the agent of his own misery. He deprives himself of his best friend by acting as the catalyst for her disintegration. Although he didn’t encourage Dennis (Richard Topol), Laura’s “bean-bag” of a husband, to take up with a 19-year-old tootsie, Frank stuck his foot into his best friend’s life when he seduced her 15-year-old son, Philip (the very promising Christopher Abbott). Even when Phillip is out of the picture, recollections of Frank’s determined stalking of the kid linger like a bad smell.
With the addition of some extra plot twists, that’s about it for the story. But relating it chronologically makes it sound sick, sick, sick — and also dull, dull, dull. Instead, Elyot shows off his considerable construction skills by deconstructing the dramatic events and challenging the audience to mentally re-shuffle the scenes into their proper sequence.
Besides giving the play an interactive component that most theatergoers love, the time-shifting conceit also lends it an air of mystery. In his cunning way, Elyot strews all the puzzle pieces at our feet — important pieces, like the motivation for Frank’s guilt and Laura’s misery, and subtler ones, too, like the reason why a ghost seems to be hanging around Laura’s (smartly designed and exceptionally well-lighted) house.
The one question the play does not answer, though, is the only one that really matters: What’s up with Frank’s reckless behavior? Is the devouring kiss he inflicts on Phillip (“like something out of ‘Alien’ “) supposed to be an affirmation of life? If so, it doesn’t make its point, being selfish and dangerous — not to mention against the law.
Left insufficiently examined, the seduction of Phillip is jolting. We’ve come to like Frank, if not to know him, and we really want to know more about the complex psychological motives that would lead him to commit such an act of abject self-loathing. For all his eloquent stuttering and stammering, Frank has revealed little about why he would destroy a friend, betray a friendship, take advantage of a lad who is technically still a child, and, most chilling, consign himself to a lonely death.