Married . . . with Problems

Imagine two straight upper-middle-class white couples on the deck of a Long Island beach house. Chloe Haddock pushes food on everyone, peppers her speech with badly pronounced French, and sings the wrong lyrics to show tunes. Her husband, John, completes the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink and lusts after his sister-in-law, Sally Truman. Sally evades John, oil-paints a beach scene, and frets over a man she's seen swim too far out into the ocean. Meanwhile her husband, Sam (Chloe's brother), makes homophobic remarks about the neighbors and worries that everyone is talking about him. Sally's brother, recently dead as a result of AIDS-related complications, left his house to her, so the couples gather there for a brief July 4th weekend holiday.

Within the imposed structure of three acts, this quartet of characters in Terrence McNally's 1991 Lips Together, Teeth Apart lurch toward and away from each other, acknowledging their fears, their needs, their mortality -- sometimes to themselves, sometimes to each other. Always they attempt, against considerable odds, to make contact. After all, they exist in McNally country, a dramatic landscape of trenchant one-liners, distinctly drawn personalities, emotional complications, and a relentless belief in the possibility of connection between human beings. And Hollywood Boulevard Theatre brings this territory to South Florida in a funny and finely acted production. With only one weekend remaining in its run, you should make an effort to catch this show.

Considered a leading American playwright -- his Love! Valour! Compassion! won this year's Tony award for best play; his new Master Class, about opera diva Maria Callas, is on its way to Broadway -- McNally began his career in the 1960s off-Broadway movement. Identified as a master of the bitchy quip, McNally also has been known for working with particular actors, over the years writing specific parts for Kathy Bates and Nathan Lane.

Certainly he has failings as a playwright. For one thing, he too glibly fancies himself a descendant of Anton Chekov. ("We'll all drink Russian vodka and get Chekovian," says John in Lips, both a nod to the stellar dramatist and a pat on McNally's own back for assembling small communities of characters and having them yearn, hope, and mourn together.) For another thing, he loves the sound of his own voice. His plays go on too long, and we often hear him speaking instead of his characters, as in the closing speeches of Lips, which too neatly resolve the characters' emotional dilemmas. Yet in challenging himself to explore character and structure with greater precision in each new play, McNally's work has deepened over the years. Although he leavens the intensity in Lips with humor, he does not hesitate to go to the heart of the characters' terrors, from fear of AIDS to fear of intimacy.

David Taylor London's affection for the Haddocks and Trumans dominates his succinct, expertly timed direction. Where McNally's script balances compassion for the characters and a merciless rendering of their self-delusions, London's direction emphasizes the play's more charitable aspects. And in the hands of a talented acting ensemble, this interpretation -- less scathing and more warmly amusing than McNally might have intended -- works just fine.

Hugh M. Murphy, fresh from his drag stint as Sylvia St. Croix in Ruthless! tempers his character's dry-witted self-control with a vivid loss of that control during a fight scene with Sam. Oscar Cheda delivers an utterly natural performance as the high-strung, rough-around-the-edges Sam. Andrea O'Connell reins in the over-the-top Chloe with enough comedy to prevent the character from becoming too irritating. And although Maribeth Graham succumbs to her musical-theater tendency to smile broadly enough to light up the back of a 500-seat house, her deeply felt characterization of Sally gives the production its emotional core. Behind the too-ready grin lies a strong dramatic actress.

McNally's work is a presence in South Florida theater this season. He wrote the book for Kiss of the Spider Woman, which opens the Broadway series at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts on October 6. And Love! Valour! Compassion! comes to Boca Raton's Caldwell Theatre in the spring. The two straight couples on holiday in Lips foreshadow the four gay couples who tell jokes and contemplate love and mortality in L! V! C! Check out all three shows, and experience how a writer's work evolves.

Stage Notes
Unless you've had your head in the sand, you'd be hard-pressed not to have heard about the controversy regarding Neil's Garden, Geoffrey Hassman's play about euthanasia and its effects on a gay couple's 40-year relationship. After its widely praised world premiere at Area Stage Company on Miami Beach in May, the show moved to Brian C. Smith's Off Broadway Theatre in Broward County, supposedly to be directed by Area's John Rodaz. However, it's no secret that Rodaz and Smith had a parting of ways once the show crossed the county line. According to Smith, the script underwent considerable changes during its long summer run under his directorship at Off Broadway. So when the twentieth annual Carbonell Award nomination ballots were being compiled this summer, the question for the 1994-95 awards production committee, which determines award eligibility, was whether or not both theaters qualified to receive Carbonell nominations for the play.

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