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Feeling Temporary 

Lips Together is a depressing, funny play that thrives in live performance.

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In Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart, two married couples spend a weekend at an upscale beach home. One of the women inherited the house from her brother, who has recently died of AIDS. While McNally peppers his script with zingers and wisecracks, the conversational topics are all downers: racism, adultery, homophobia, loneliness, cruelty, infertility, fear of death, a conviction that life offers nothing but emptiness.

Why would anybody want to spend two hours at a play like that?

Because Lips Together does things that plays do best: speeches heard by some characters but not others, the poetry of chiming verbal motifs. And McNally’s decision to reveal the characters’ secrets early on — and in the blatantly artificial technique of asides (monologues directed at the audience) has the effect of making playgoers feel like confidants. We share the characters’ inmost fears, and it practically compels our empathy.

Those monologues reveal secrets (about childbirth, disease and forbidden desire) that color our perception of all the petty things that Chloe and John do during their weekend at Sam and Sally’s new house.

McNally’s non-naturalistic techniques elicit compassion for troubled people — people whom we don’t know well and who don’t seem headed toward blissful futures. People, in other words, like most everyone around us.

Not a lot happens in Lips Together; the characters don’t achieve great insights. But there are compensations. The play opens with four characters puttering around on a pool deck, their actions underscored, literally, by a Mozart opera. They’re just people with problems, like the rest of us. But picked out at a particular moment and heightened, their lives become beautiful.

And McNally’s play puts them in a crucible — because while they may just be sipping their morning coffee over the New York Times crossword puzzle, they’re going to have to make some decisions about their lives.

McNally is a popular playwright. While he’s 70 now and his career peaked in the ’80s and ’90s, his plays Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, A Perfect Ganesh and Master Class have been produced in Spokane, and he wrote the books for the musicals Ragtime and Kiss of the Spider Woman.

He doesn’t deal in fluff. Director Wes Deitrick points to Lips’ theme of self-alienation: McNally’s characters, he says, “grow apart not from each other but from themselves.”

Childlessness and a lack of purpose cloud over the life of Sally (played by Amy Nathan), whose brother has just died. “I wouldn’t want me for a mother either,” she says. “Too frightened, too sad, too late.”

“Sally is changed,” Deitrick says, “but the other three — they don’t change. Or they only change for a moment in time.” Take homophobic Sam (played by Ron Ford) and his contact over the course of the weekend with the gay men next door. As Deitrick notes, McNally’s men “for one day might function with gay people. They might go home and say, ‘Oh, we talked to the gay people next door’ — and then the next day, they drive their cars home and talk to the neighbors and call them [expletives]. I don’t think these characters change for good or for very long.”

The two straight couples in Lips Together make only halting steps toward improvement.

But then this is a cast that knows about dealing with the unexpected and the unknown: One of the four actors in this production was thrown into his or her role less than a week before opening night.

Nobody’s sure how this show will turn out, or if it will change anyone’s life, or if the actors’ worst fears will be realized.

Just as in McNally’s script. And suddenly some dreary old play in which nothing much happens focuses your concentration. Live performance is like that.

Lips Together, Teeth Apart will explode its ironic fireworks at the Civic’s Studio Theater, Dean Ave. and Howard St., on Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 pm from April 30-May 23. (No performance on May 15.) Tickets: $16; $8, student rush. Visit spokanecivictheatre.com or call 325-2507 or (800) 325-SEAT.

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