I had no idea what to expect when I walked into Theatre 54, a small space on the 12th floor of a midtown building on 54th street to see Australian playwright Andrew Bovell's play Speaking in Tongues. There was a small playing area with mirrored walls and an overabundance of lighting fixtures in between two banks of audience seats (this is called a "traverse" stage, as opposed to the "proscenium," or picture-frame staging that Broadway theatres are designed to utilize). But as soon as the action started, I was thoroughly impressed by the excellent writing, the committed acting, and the structure of both the script and the staging.
This four person play, well-directed by Bryn Boice, takes themes like infidelity, break-ups, and murder, and weaves them together into a piece of theatre that is a truly unique object. As I just mentioned, there are several aspects of this production that work together to create a mesmerizing experience.
First of all, I was struck by Bovell's writing. My friend, also a theatre scholar, commented on the fact that "naturalism" is sometimes used in a negative way in the theatre to imply that something is old, or boring. Postmodern theatre, in other words, tends not to like it. However, Speaking in Tongues is proof that, when done properly, naturalism can be electrifying and modern. There are moments in this production when the crisp dialogue brings out pity or humor because of the idiosyncratic ways the characters associate things.
Whereas the naturalistic dialogue makes the quotidian exciting, there are also moments of consciously poetic storytelling that push the boundaries of naturalism for me. I was shocked at the vivid imagery certain monologues conjured for me. The odd, haunting, and human ways that these tales were told relied heavily on a storytelling tradition, where real life can be elevated to a metaphoric level. But it is all firmly grounded in the personable nature of these characters, and the easy way the audience, or at least I, felt connected to them.
This endearing humanity seeps out of Bovell's script, and is picked up by a set of actors who couldn't be better cast, in my opinion. Kathleen Foster (Jane/Valerie), Matthew Foster (Pete/Neil/John), Laura Iris Hill (Sonja/Sarah), and Michael Poignand (Leon/Nick) are all so believable that sometimes it's hard to believe that they're acting at all. Luckily, Bovell's script gives them the opportunity to wear more than one hat in the production, which lets us see that they all have talent and range. There isn't a weak link among them, but rather a solid group of actors that get the most out of each other and the script.
And there's plenty to get. I'm a sucker for a creative structure, and Speaking in Tongues certainly deserves that label. Initially, the symmetry of both setting and dialogue, as two couples say the same lines to each other, is an impressive feat. Yet as the scene progresses, and Bovell riffs on this theme, changing individual words or timing sometimes, and then returning to the perfect symmetry, things get really interesting. Meanings shift, relationships change, and different topics are addressed with practically the same dialogue. I will say that there is more of this symmetry in the first act than the second, but both acts work like separate units of a complete picture. The play ends in an unsatisfying place for me, but I think that relates more to my own desire to spend more time with the characters than anything else.
Bovell masterfully introduces various viewpoints on every topic and person of importance in Speaking in Tongues, and at no moment will he let things be simple. I am always appreciative of a playwright who isn't afraid to make the audience think, and the expert way Bovell and the Australian Made Entertainment cast and crew challenge assumptions is particularly noteworthy. The show only plays through December 16th, and if you want to see a great piece of theatre, you should head over and see it.