A half-dozen enlightenment seekers head off into the woods for a five-day spiritual retreat where talking is taboo in Bess Wohl’s entertaining, touching, emotionally observant Small Mouth Sounds, now playing at Santa Monica’s The Broad Stage.

 Speech is not all that is verboten to Alicia, Jan, Joan, Judy, Ned and Rodney in this Ars Nova Production. So are cell phones, outside food, cigarettes, open flames, scented candles, and alcohol.

Clothing, on the other hand, is entirely optional at the nearby lake, or so the sextet is informed in one of the New Age mumbo-jumbo-filled talks given by their heard-but-not-seen Teacher (a deliciously droll Orville Mendoza).

 Yoga video star Rodney’s (Edward Chin-Lyn) eagerness to strip down to his birthday suit and show off his Michelangelo-designed bod is but one irritant to his nondescript roommate Ned (Ben Beckley). Rodney’s eagerness to light forbidden incense in their shared chamber leaves him equally incensed.

Blonde beauty—and emotional wreck—Alicia (Brenna Palughi) and the enigmatic, bearded Jan (Connor Barrett) seem no better a fit than Rodney and Ned for their side-by-side straw mats. Even without uttering a word, the former seems incapable of silence, as evidenced by the crinkling bag of junk food she’s brought along as a late-night snack.

Lesbian couple Joan (Socorro Santiago) and Judy (Cherene Snow) may be the most suited to share sleeping quarters, at least on paper, but even they seem to be getting on each other’s nerves these days.

 Even without spoken language, Wohl comes up with multiple ways for her characters to interact. A random act of kindness provides Ned with a writing instrument with which he can finally join the others in jotting down his “intentions” for the retreat.

 Alicia finds herself the object of desire of two of the men, one hot, one not, just one more reason for Ned to resent Rodney.

Joan and Jan bicker silently as only longtime partners can.

And little by little we begin to piece together the reasons each has opted out of loud-mouthed big-city life, in some cases more explicitly than others, though whether this five-day retreat will leave any of them better off upon departure than they were when they arrived is open to debate.

 What is not debatable is director Rachel Chavkin’s consummate attention to nuance and detail, or what may well be the year’s most unique performances from an all-around sensational New York-based cast, as adept at physical comedy as they are at suggesting their characters’ inner workings without the aid of snappy patter.

 Taking Small Mouth Sounds on tour has necessitated modifying its original off-Broadway design, one which had audience members seated on opposite sides of the action, to fit large proscenium houses like The Broad Stage, and if a certain intimacy is lost, the transfer has afforded scenic designer Laura Jellinek a broader canvas to work on, her Japanesesque set expanding and contracting to imaginative effect as video designer Andrew Schneider, sound designer Stowe Nelson, and lighting designer Mike Inwood take us from rainstorm to sunlight to dead of night.

As for Tilly Grimes’s costumes and Noah Mease’s props, each one reveals much about the characters who wear or handle them.

 Lauren Z. Adelman is associate director. James Steele is production stage manager. Henry Russell Bergstein, CSA, is casting director.

Small Mouth Sounds may not have you rushing off on your own wordless spiritual retreat. It should, at the very least, get you scurrying over to The Broad Stage for a delightful taste of what you’d be missing.

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The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Through January 28. Tuesdays through Fridays 7:30. Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 and 7:30. No evening performance on January 28. Reservations: 310 434-3200

–Steven Stanley
January 12, 2018
Photos: Ben Gibbs, T. Charles Erickson


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