×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Off Broadway Review: ‘Small Mouth Sounds’ at Ars Nova

With:
Erik Lochtefeld, Babak Tafti, Brad Heberlee, Marcia Debonis, Sakina Jaffrey, JoJo Gonzalez, Jessica Almasy.

Disney has already grabbed her, and she’s got history with Paramount, so playwright Bess Wohl isn’t exactly a free agent. But with her theatrical know-how and offbeat imagination, recently on view in “American Hero” and “Pretty Filthy,” this is a scribe worth fighting over.  Her new play, “Small Mouth Sounds,” in a flawless production directed by Rachel Chavkin (“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812“) for Ars Nova, feels like a holiday outing, a minimalist piece of experimental theater that casts the audience as voyeurs in an entertaining adventure that gradually darkens into tragedy.

The immersive nature of the piece is efficiently established by the configuration of Ars Nova’s modest space.  A small stage with six folding chairs stands on risers at one end of this long, narrow room, but the main staging area occupies the center of the floor space, with bleacher seating running the length of the room on both sides. Horizontal panels above the heads of the audience let in light and offer glimpses of vegetation, while allowing the sounds of birdsong to flutter in — nice work all around from designers Laura Jellinek (set), Mike Inwood (lighting), Stowe Nelson (sound) and Andrew Schneider (projections).

Costumer Tilly Grimes and prop master Noah Mease show off their own imaginative work when the five eccentric strangers (and one latecomer) involved in this drama start filing in, humping a great assortment of gear, and take their seats on the small stage.

Jan (Erik Lochtefeld) is middle-aged and probably shy, since he makes no overtures to his fellow guests — or inmates. But he carries a child’s backpack, which looks weird.

Judy (Sakina Jaffrey) and Joan (Marcia Debonis) arrive together, bickering like the long-time lovers they appear to be.

Ned (Brad Heberlee) is a super-annoying guy who seems to know what’s expected of him and has no patience with his clueless companions.

Rodney (Babak Tafti) is a gorgeous specimen of narcissistic manhood who removes himself from the present company by striking perfect yoga poses.

Alicia (Jessica Almasy), the latecomer, is a pretty, ditzy thing whose constant fidgeting — and junk food addiction — drives everyone crazy.

It isn’t until the disembodied voice of the Teacher (JoJo Gonzalez) comes over the loudspeaker that we find out why these six strangers have gathered in what appears to be an isolated camp in the woods. It’s not a camp, after all, but a yoga retreat for world-weary city dwellers in need of spiritual rejuvenation. But since this is a silent retreat, we’re obliged to study the behavior and interactions of the participants to guess the reasons that might have brought them here.

The Teacher’s initial instructions make this sound like an exciting adventure. “Think of this retreat as a vacation from your habits. Your routines. Yourself, ” he drones on, in the self-satisfied tones of the self-anointed. “It is the best kind. Of vacation. Because after this. You don’t ever have to go back. To who you were.”

Since the rules of this place are a bit eccentric — “Clothing is optional. At the lake. But required in all other locations” — the absurdity of the situation calls more for laughter than reverence.  And for a while, that’s the light-hearted spirit in which the play is enacted, as everyone struggles politely with the tricky logistics of silently meditating, sleeping and yes, bathing nude with strangers.

Chavkin’s direction is so supple and the ensemble work so subtle, it’s hard to say exactly when the shift happens — the silent, earth-moving switch from comedy to tragedy that makes this strange little play so moving. But when it does happen, it’s shattering.

Popular on Variety

Off Broadway Review: 'Small Mouth Sounds' at Ars Nova

Arts Nova; 90 seats; $35 top. Opened March 23, 2015. Reviewed March 18. Running time: ONE HOUR, 40 MIN.

Production: A presentation by Ars Nova of a play in one act by Bess Wohl.

Creative: Directed by Rachel Chavkin. Sets, Laura Jellinek; costumes, Tilly Grimes; lighting, Mike Inwood; sound, Stowe Nelson; productions, Andrew Schneider; props, Noah Mease; production stage manager, James Steele.

Cast: Erik Lochtefeld, Babak Tafti, Brad Heberlee, Marcia Debonis, Sakina Jaffrey, JoJo Gonzalez, Jessica Almasy.

More Legit

  • Timothee Chalamet poses for photographers at

    Timothée Chalamet to Make London Stage Debut With Eileen Atkins in '4000 Miles'

    Timothee Chalemet is set to take to the London stage for the first time, appearing next spring in Amy Herzog’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play “4000 Miles.” Matthew Warchus will direct the production at The Old Vic, which will also star Eileen Atkins (“The Crown,” “Gosford Park”). The play opens April 2020. It turns on the story [...]

  • Jonathan Groff

    Listen: Jonathan Groff Knows He's a Spitter

    If you’ve seen “Little Shop of Horrors” — the starry revival headlined by Jonathan Groff in a small Off Broadway theater — you probably noticed that Groff spits a lot when he speaks onstage. He’ll be the first to tell you that he’s been a spitter as long as he can remember, but “Little Shop” [...]

  • Key Largo

    L.A. Theater Review: Andy Garcia in 'Key Largo'

    Would “Casablanca” make a good play? Guess what: It was first produced on stage as “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” How about “Key Largo,” the black-and-white Bogie-and-Bacall vehicle in which a handful of misfits find themselves trapped in a South Florida hotel while a hurricane rages outside? In fact, the 1948 John Huston film was adapted [...]

  • Sophia Anne Caruso and Alex Brightman'Beetlejuice'

    How 'Beetlejuice: The Musical' Became a Broadway Turnaround Story

    Christopher Kuczewski is what you’d call a Netherling. It’s a reference to the netherworld inhabitants who populate “Beetlejuice: The Musical,” the off-beat adaptation of the 1988 hit film that’s becoming an unlikely Broadway turnaround story. And that designation, which has been given to superfans of the show, goes a long way towards explaining how a [...]

  • Lena Waithe'The Inheritance' Broadway play opening,

    Lena Waithe, Anderson Cooper Attend Broadway Opening of 'The Inheritance'

    “The Inheritance” pulls viewers in many directions — toward pain and hope, trauma and healing. It’s what brought stars like Andy Cohen, Anderson Cooper, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick and Lena Waithe to Broadway on Sunday — a chance to heal, to remember and grieve. Also in attendance for the premiere at the Barrymore Theater [...]

  • Touching the Void review

    West End Review: 'Touching the Void'

    It shouldn’t work. Attempting to make effective theatre out of scaling a mountain, facing disaster thousands of feet up in the freezing cold and enduring a drawn-out facedown with death is surely a preposterous idea. Yet that is exactly what playwright David Grieg and director Tom Morris and his ideally meshed creative team have done. [...]

  • Hangmen review play

    Martin McDonagh’s 'Hangmen' Coming to Broadway in 2020

    Martin McDonagh’s “Hangmen” will debut on Broadway this spring, the latest in a line of West End transfers to the Great White Way this year. The play, which focuses on the second-best executioner in Britain dealing with his government’s decision to abolish his favorite form of doing away with prisoners, will begin performances on Feb. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content