Speaking in Tongues
"Speaking In Tongues," by Andrew Bovell and directed at Theater Wit by Jeffry Stanton is the story of five sets of couples who are in varying stages of love, turmoil, betrayal, repair and loneliness.
The play begins with two couples sharing the same bed, metaphysically, as they cheat on one another. It is a brilliant use of space, time, character and dialog. As Pete and Leon prepare to cheat on their wives, Jane and Sonja, with Jane and Sonja.
Their dialog is interwoven so they speak the clichés that seemingly all those who are about to commit infidelity speak ("She doesn’t understand me," "We just drifted apart," "I want to feel wanted" and of course, "I think you are beautiful") but they do it at the same time, telling two stories at once, but revealing more about this world and their relationships by comparison.
It is astonishing to watch the actors glide in and out of each other’s space as they use separate corners of the same bed to conduct the same and different conversations. Ultimately one couple consummates their betrayal while their partners do not. This uneven distribution of power, guilt and shame sets the tone for the rest of the story. This first scene makes the whole play worth it.
As the first act unfolds, Sonja and Leon and Pete and Jane discover the betrayal, explore their relationship boundaries, meet each other accidentally, and eke out a future with or without their partners. Several other stories and characters are introduced, not directly, but as stories within stories that the characters are telling one another to illustrate how their lives are without one another.
Leon relates the tale of Sarah and Neil, a story of one man’s dependence on the idea of love. Jane tells Pete about the nefarious neighbor Nick’s suspicious behavior. And the scene ends with what looks like one couple re-bonding, dancing, finding joy in one another and the other couple retreating more into themselves.
The second act is the back story on Nick and his wife and the stranded motorist he picks up, Valerie. Valerie is a therapist and her patient Sarah is having an affair with Valerie’s husband John. Confused? Jenny Lamb, who also played Jane, plays Valerie. Neal Starbird, who also played Leon, plays Nick. Meg Elliot, who also played Sonja, plays Sarah, and Joe Flynn plays John/Neil/Pete.
Valerie, the therapist, disappears after her car breaks down on an empty road. Nick picks her up to help her but she becomes so frightened of him (not sure what that was about) she runs off into the woods and is never heard from again.
Before she is picked up, she leaves hysterical and ranting messages on her husband’s answering machine where she speaks freely about how their marriage is faltering and they are drifting apart, about her patient Sarah unbeknownst to her who is sleeping with her husband. Basically, it’s a whole bunch of water-muddying reveals.
This play was deeply uneven. With such a fine start, interesting characters and dynamics, well-paced dialog and the wonderful performances of Neal Starbird and Meg Elliot, who were warm, funny and engaging in all their roles, "Speaking in Tongues" was off to a great start.
I believe it tried to take on too much; adding an off-balanced therapist’s disappearance, the psychotic Sarah, no-luck Neil and ne’er-do-well Nick to the mix was just too much. I actually wanted to see Jane, Pete, Sonja and Leon work through their similar but separate marriage problems. Instead Jerry Springer’s show made an appearance with missing ladies, infidelity, secret pregnancies and murder most foul.
Relationships are the bread and butter of drama. They need to be no more complicated than they actually are to be engaging. In the hands of a confident writer, actor or director, the subtle disloyalties, betrayals and romances of everyday life are Shakespearean enough to fill every seat in the house.
"Speaking in Tongues" is smart, edgy, interesting, but in the end, depended too much on manufactured drama and not enough on the large talents of its actors and director to make this story plausible.
"Speaking in Tongues" runs through Mar. 24 at the Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont in Chicago. For info or tickets, visit interrobangtheatreproject.org.