LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART is more than and AIDS play

(left to right) John (Cameron Weston), Chloe (Sarah Mitchell), Sam (Michael Sally), Sally (Marie O'Donnell) celebrate the 4th of July in Lips Together, Teeth Apart by Terrance McNally at the New Conservatory Theatre.

LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART: Comedy by Terrence McNally, directed by Dennis Licktieg. New Conservatory Theatre Center (Decker Theatre), located at 25 Van Ness Avenue near Market Street in San Francisco, 94102. (415) 861-8972 or online at

LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART is more than an AIDS play.

In the late 80s and early 90s plays about the devastating epidemic of AIDS began to appear. In 1990 Tony Kushner was putting the final touches to his seminal Pulitzer Prize play Angels in America. In 1991 Terrance McNally first joined the bandwagon with the Emmy Award winning TV miniseries Andre’s Mother a drama about a woman trying to cope with her son's death from AIDS. He followed that up with Lips Together, Teeth Apart and later with his Tony Award winning Love! Valor! Compassion! Although the major plot twist in Lips Together, Teeth Apart is about AIDS and the public fear in engendered, the driving forces of the characters involves individual inner isolation and insecurities while displaying an exterior of being in control.

The locale is a beach house on the predominantly Gay Fire Island now inhabited by two straight couples. There is Sally (Marie O’Donnell) and her husband Sam (Michael Sally) and Sam’s sister Chloe (Sarah Mitchell) and her husband John (Cameron Weston). Sally has inherited the cottage from her brother David who has died of complications from AIDS. Before the action begins the four actors are in a tableau. Sam leans over the pool his hand dipped into the pool testing the chlorine level. Sally is at an easel with a paint brush in her hand. John sits in a chair reading a newspaper and Chloe is framed in the sliding glass door with a coffee cup in her hand. The sound of the ocean wafts across the scene.

McNally is a master at writing dialog and the words given to each of his characters rings true. But, in order to fill in the background and round out his character’s personalities he uses the devise of internal monologs by each not heard by the others. These instances are demarcated by dimming the stage lights with spotlight on the speaker. An example, Sally has had a series of miscarriages and has guilt feelings about her relationship with her deceased brother. She also has witnessed the probable suicide of a man swimming off into the rough surf.

Sam insists he is a “humble Trenton New Jersey homeowner” but under his gruff, defensive veneer is unsure of himself, often unable to tie his tie, thus sometimes becomes aggressive to hide his vulnerability. He resents his brother-in-law John, a successful school administrator, who has had an affair with Sally.

John’s taciturn exterior hides the fact that he has incurable cancer and still has feelings for Sally but truly loves his wife. Hyperactive Chloe hides her knowledge that Sally and John have had a fling by her taking charge, being the most helpful one, often changing the subjects and thus avoiding reality with her unending superficial patter.

The unseen gay neighbors are an integral part of the plot And the discussions about homosexuality brings out the overt and sub-rosa homophobia in all. It is abundantly displayed that they avoid going into the pool used by the deceased David for fear of “catching” AIDS. After rather violent altercation between Sam and John, McNally adroitly and maybe in a too pat manner, throws in a game of Charades to lighten the intensity and understanding is forth coming with the Fourth of July fireworks, small American flags and a final tableau as they watch a shooting star signifying hope.

The four-person ensemble shines in their individual way. Marie O’Donnell displays Sally’s kindness and love of humanity with dignity and strength even when she explodes before the play ends. Michael Sally is just perfect for the role of “common, ordinary Sam”, and is the most likeable of all. Cameron Weston’s intentionally staid performance has the ring of truth. All in all, it is Sarah Mitchell’s Tony Award winning performance as Chloe that carries the show.

The stage in the Decker Theatre has never looked better in Kuo-Hao Lo’s set that looks as if it was plucked from the seashore and using the stage apron as the edge of the swimming pool. Dennis Lickteig’s direction is top-notch and he uses light and sound cues perfectly (Christian Mejia and Stephen Abts).

This play is highly recommended. Running time two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

Courtesy of

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