The secrets we hide from those we love, the lies we tell to protect both them and ourselves, and the truths that can only be revealed to strangers lie at the heart of Andrew Bovell’s extraordinary Speaking In Tongues, the first half of the rotating-rep double-bill that marks the welcome return of Los Angeles’s Australian Theatre Company.
Anyone who caught Bovell’s screen adaptation of his 1997 stage play (retitled Lantana, given a 2001 U.S. release, and proclaimed one of that year’s 10 Best by Time Magazine) will recognize most of Speaking In Tongues’ nine characters—cop Leon (Matt Passmore), who cheats on wife Sonja (Kym Wilson) with Jane (Tina Kobas), who almost cheats on hubby Leon with Sonja’s spouse Pete (Jamie Irvine), along with therapist Valerie (Kobas), whose mysterious disappearance may somehow be linked to Jane and Pete’s neighbor John (Irvine).
What distinguishes Speaking In Tongues from Lantana (and from the other half of ATC’s double bill, the movie-esque Ruben Guthrie) is its daring, exhilarating theatricality.
We meet Act One’s cheating/near-cheating couples in a pair of scenes played simultaneously in matching hotel rooms, overlapping conversations whose synchronicity may test credibility … but no matter. We are hooked, and stay that way as a series of coincidences introduce husband to husband and wife to wife as secrets that none of them could tell their respective spouses get spilled to complete strangers, stories of love and loss and betrayal and trust and perhaps even hope.
Act Two introduces us to characters mentioned in Act One: Neil (Irvine), still pining over Sarah (Wilson), the woman who quite literally got away; shrink Valerie, who for some reason can’t abide her latest client, Sarah; and Pete and Jane’s neighbor John, interrogated by Leon (the only first-act character to return post-intermission) about his possible involvement in Valerie’s disappearance.
Despite the multiple laughs engendered by Speaking In Tongues cheating couples in Act One, Bovell’s play never feels like a comedy, so real is the suffering that has brought his characters in contact with each other, nor do the play’s multiple coincidences detract from its power to involve and move us with struggles likely to mirror our own.
Jeneffa Soldatic directs Speaking In Tongues with intelligence, nuance, and insight into nine distinct lives, and she is rewarded with superb work by her four fellow Aussies.
Passmore’s confident, tough-as-nails Leon contrasts with the vulnerability he gives Nick. Kobas’s romantically, sexually frustrated Jane is worlds apart from the lost, defensive Valerie. Irvine differentiates the deeply conflicted Pete from the (heart)broken Neil from the justifiably frightened John. Wilson gives us a Sonja devastated by betrayal who could not be more different from the harder-edged Sarah. And all four actors score bonus points for acing the challenges of Act One’s intersecting dialog.
The Cinemascope-wide Matrix Theatre stage is precisely what the playwright might have ordered for Speaking In Tongues, allowing scenic designer John Iacovelli to give us at least three distinct playing areas, a pair of rotating mini-stages permitting swift scene changes facilitated by mostly hidden props-and-furniture switches.
Jared A. Sayeg’s exquisitely subtle lighting, Kate Bergh’s character-distinguishing costumes, and Cricket S. Myers’ mood-enhancing sound design represent Grade-A work from three of L.A.’s absolute finest.
Speaking In Tongues is produced by Jackie Diamond, Nick Hardcastle, Nate Jones, and Joshua Thornton for Australian Theatre Company. Leah Patterson is assistant director. Joy Dabbs is stage manager and Quinn Pickering is assistant stage manager.
It’s been two years since Australian Theatre Company debuted with its unforgettable Holding The Man, but the double bill marking its return to the Matrix makes it well worth the wait.
With Hollywood the destination of so many Aussie talents these days, the time and place could not be riper for ATC to dazzle audiences with some of the most exciting theater in town.
Speaking In Tongues is sure be setting Los Angeles tongues abuzz throughout its month-of-June run.
Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles.
June 6, 2016
Photos: Suzanne Strong