by: Michael Bracken


A lesbian couple, one of whom has cancer.  A Tibetan guru whose father is dying.  A rock climber whose skull was cracked in eight places from a fall.  Doesn’t sound like much grist for the comic mill.  But it is.

In Small Mouth Sounds, at Ars Nova, playwright Bess Wohl has fashioned a captivating comedy by shrewdly observing human imperfection under a Buddhist-tinged microscope. Six would-be ascetics, with widely diverse backgrounds and personalities, have forsaken the city for five days, seemingly seeking peace and enlightenment in the open air of the country.  As part of their retreat, they embrace silence, sort of.  Most communication is done with gestures, often misunderstood but not overdone.

But one voice rings out loud and clear.  At the start of every day we hear an unnamed, unseen, disembodied teacher (Jojo Gonzalez) whose honeyed voice is transmitted through a microphone. He talks smoothly and clearly, with a slow cadence, often pausing meaningfully mid-sentence.  Gonzalez’ delivery is absolutely perfect for a hallowed dispenser of wisdom and truth.  He relates parables and mystical musings, poses puzzles, and plots out paths to self-knowledge.

But while his voice is always soothing and sage, his messages, as well as his demeanor, are prone to be less than yogic.  At one point he takes a phone call during a lesson.  At another he goes into a diatribe (still delivered in dulcet tones) about lateness and disrespect.  His pronouncements tend to have the sheen of profundity wrapped around the wisdom of a fortune cookie.

His pupils are an intriguingly motley crew.  Finely drawn by Wohl, each is a type of sorts but with a distinct individuality.  The force of their personalities (along with that of their teacher) is a major factor in giving the comedy its warmth and appeal.

Rodney (Babak Tafti) is an extremely telegenic yoga teacher (with a line of videos to prove it), who never passes up an opportunity to assume a perfect lotus posture.  He’s also completely self-absorbed and self-indulgent.  Namaste. Rodney shares a room with Ned (Brad Heberlee), whose climbing accident was just the beginning of his troubles, which included his wife’s running off with his little brother, an armed robbery, his house burning down, and more.  He’s angry but comes from a good place.  Rodney, understandably, makes his blood boil.

The most enigmatic of the group is Jan (Eric Lochtefeld).  Cheerful and good-natured, he doesn’t reveal much about himself.  His unlikely roommate is Alicia (Jessica Almasy), a thirtyish blonde who cries a lot, talks whenever she feels like it, and carries around a pantryful of contraband snacks.

Joan (Marcia Debonis) and Judy (Sakina Jaffrey) initially appear to be a solid, supportive, if occasionally bickering, twosome.  Judy, who we learn has cancer, is slight and low-key, while Joan is larger in girth and personality.  Their relationship is mightily tested in the course of the week. Both Debonis, with her fussy movements and awkward attempts to placate Joan, and Almasy, endearingly off-kilter with her crying jags and shopping bags, are especially funny.  Tafti’s hauteur is priceless; his sense of entitlement is such a given it’s hard not to buy into it.  Heberlee’s confused, insecure resentment is grating in a touching sort of way. Lochtefeld and Jaffrey winningly emit some very underplayed romantic sparks.

In addition to getting fine performances out of her actors, director Rachel Chavkin uses the space at Ars Nova effectively.  The audience is divided in two, facing a very wide center aisle, which functions as the primary playing area.   The exception is when the retreaters listen to the teacher: they sit onstage at the front of the room.  It’s a slight discomfort to twist your neck to see them, but I’m sure the unseen guru would assure us discomfort brings awareness.  And laughs.

Photos: Ben Arons

Ars Nova, 511 West 54th Street NY, NY 10019.  http://arsnovanyc.com/.  Through Oct. 9  100 minutes.