Deaf Lesbian, Diminutive Dog
In a press release, New Theatre has this to say about its new production, Fill Our Mouths: "Gay or straight? Hearing or deaf? Set in Paris, a heterosexual woman's sexually adventuresome affair with a hard-of-hearing lesbian weaves a sensual fabric of communication and self-realization. As the relationship grows between them, both characters see themselves and the world around them in a different light. Using spoken English and American Sign Language, Fill Our Mouths ... is a story of love and choice, deafness and hearing, the trials of communication, and the search for self when caught between two worlds."
Zzzzzsssnort. There's trouble brewing when so many opportunities for political correctness — same-sex relationships explored by differently abled people in the midst of a foreign culture — are jammed together in a single play. But Fill Our Mouths is nothing like you'd expect. Or almost nothing. It does, in fact, have a moral — avoid labels, be true to yourself, be adventuresome, and so forth — but people don't go to the theater for the moral any more than they go to Chinese restaurants for the fortune cookie. They go to the theater to be entertained and moved, usually in that order. And appearances to the contrary, those are the very things playwright Lauren Feldman seems to have been chasing with Fill Our Mouths. While it is unlikely to blow minds or change your opinion of deaf lesbians, it will make you smile, empathize, feel good, and feel bad, and it will do all of those things many times.
Mostly, though, Fill Our Mouths finds traction in humor, and that's remarkable. There is something liberating about being able to laugh along with, or somehow at, a deaf lesbian. Not that the play is cruel or assumes itself superior to its subjects. Quite the opposite. Lela Elam, unmatched among South Florida actresses in terms of dramatic conviction and pure characterization, has enough warmth and depth to give the almost-deaf Chap both good humor and honest pathos without hamming it up. The parts that are supposed to be comical are indeed funny because you believe Chap and her new lover, Katherine Michelle Tanner's weirdly named Evan, find them funny. Early in their affair, Chap tells Evan she doesn't love just the pretty parts of her, but all of her — even the "little hairs that grow around your asshole." Evan is shocked: "I have little hairs around my asshole?!" This is the kind of humor that Fill Our Mouths deals in — not jokes, but the real and private humor of human beings falling in and out of love.
Fill Our Mouths is a technical achievement for the actors involved, all of whom had to learn American Sign Language for the show. But even for Kim Ehly, who plays Chap's completely deaf girlfriend and who seems to have achieved the greatest ASL fluency, the small, private moments of her performance outweigh any of the larger, more quantifiable achievements. When she and Chap are standing in the café where they work, Ehly rubs some flour onto Elam's face and signs, "I can do that because I'm the boss." It's sweet, and you like her instantly. This is a good relationship, you figure, and you're glad.
You're also sad, of course, because at that very moment, Chap is striking up an affair with Evan. The slow unveiling of these characters might not equal much of a story plot-wise, but they do make fertile ground for drama. The set of Fill Our Mouths is made up of multicolor panels depicting clouds, one of which slides away to reveal an apartment window, beyond which, presumably, there are even more clouds. It's unclear why this decision was made, but I was reminded of a line from a Paul Simon song: "Nature gives us shapeless shapes/Clouds and waves and flame." The tendency is to name the shapes we find in clouds, and I think we drag the same desire to the theater. In Fill Our Mouths, as always, we're better off simply watching and trying to listen.
If Fill Our Mouths is a show with a surplus of drama and an absence of plot, The Little Dog Laughed is a fully developed plot serviced by actors who strive mightily to inject the drama left out by the playwright. They do such a good job you might have to wait until a few hours after the last curtain call to realize how hard the actors worked and how totally Douglas Carter Beane ignored the human element when penning his script.
Little Dog is the story of Mitch (Todd Allen Durkin), a Hollywood actor on the brink of stardom who's in New York with his agent to collect some kind of award. His agent, Diane (Pillar Uribe), is a lesbian. Mitch is a closeted gay man. The night of the awards ceremony, Mitch gets wasted in his room and phones an escort service. A sweet young hustler by the name of Alex (Justin Sims) arrives. It's something like love at first sight. Why? Who knows? From that moment on, the two treat each other like long-lost soul mates, even though they appear to have nothing in common. That Mitch is willing to endanger his career and his relationship with his stalwart agent for this boy seems improbable; that Alex is willing to risk his girlfriend and give up his lifestyle for this man seems more so.
Drunk, self-effacing, and utterly bewildered by just about everything, Durkin's Mitch has an offhand way of delivering lines that is so fun you don't really give a shit about their content. When Alex turns down a drink on his first night in the apartment, Durkin looks into the middle distance and half-frowns. "No?" he asks, gesturing vaguely with his glass. "Why? Did life ... suddenly get beautiful?" As Diane, Uribe is equally fascinating to watch — horrified that her client might soon be outed, she keeps ratcheting up the hysteria long after you'd think she can go no higher. Her meanness under fire and the intensity of her reptilian calculation are miracles of intentional overacting.
But it's difficult to care much. Though Little Dog is fun to see, it is a triumph of form over content. It's distressing to enjoy watching something so intensely only to realize it made you feel nothing. Or maybe that's proper. If it's good enough for Carter Beane, who are we to complain?
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