The mind reels, the heart aches
Relationships are complicated in real life, so why should they be simple on stage?
Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues, which the Milwaukee Rep opened Friday, is not a simple play. Four actors, directed by Laura Gordon, play nine characters. The plot, part mystery and part Scenes from a Marriage, is non-linear. Bovell’s structure is ambitious and complex. Each act tells several different stories. Some stories are told more than once.
The play has an overarching plot, but plot is secondary to the characters and their relationships. The names and characters change throughout the play, but the theme of couples failing to communicate remains constant. The subjects in each pairing, licit or illicit, dance around the issues that divide them. They can’t bridge the gap.
The play, too, has a gap problem. The first half shows how the inability to communicate can destroy love but not life. The second half shows how the inability to communicate can destroy life but not love. That’s smart, but I’m not so sure that the two halves connect.
The plot threading them together sounds like a typical mystery: A psychiatrist goes missing, and all the evidence seems to point to one man. But this crime is a background note in Act 1, which focuses on sexual betrayal the emotional crises the characters endure.
The play opens with two couples, one played by Lee Ernst and Jenny McKnight and the other by Jonathan Smoots and Deborah Staples, engaged in simultaneous infidelities. The seductions play out in counterpoint; sometimes the lovers use the same bits of dialogue, sometimes even speak them in unison. One couple goes through with the betrayal, the other does not. All the relationships collapse soon after, and the quartet tries to pick up the pieces.
Everything changes after intermission. The actors transform themselves into four characters merely mentioned in the first act. The actors manage this shift — and another one is coming in Act 3 — in nearly seamless fashion.
The character transition is smooth; the shift in tone, however, jolts us. The first act has its darker moments; the second plays out in the darkness of night, with soon-to-go-missing psychiatrist Valerie (Staples) clinging to a pay phone and lost with a dead car.
The sinister tone carries into to the final act. One of the initial characters returns to question Valerie’s husband, but the emotional resonance of the first act is never truly returns. The themes dovetail at times, but Speaking in Tongues feels like two separate plays with shared characters.
Maybe the structure of the play is overly complex. But maybe not. Relationships are never simple.
The Milwaukee Rep’s Speaking in Tongues runs through March 13 at the Stiemke Theater. Tickets can be purchased at 414-224-9490 or visit the company’s website.