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.