By Andrew Bovill
Directed by Mark Clements
Starring Karen Allen, Kevin Anderson,
Margaret Colin and Michel R. Gill
A Production of the Roundabout Theatre Company at
the Gramercy Theatre /127 East 23rd Street / (212) 777-4900

Reviewed by David Spencer

At first, if you’ve seen enough lousy plays about relationships, "Speaking in Tongues" may send you a bit of an "uh-oh." We see two philandering couples in separate hotel rooms. The unfaithful husband and wife in the first room are married to the unfaithful husband and wife in the next, and the synchronous overlapping, and counterpointed dialogue that fuels many of the opening exchanges–to say nothing of the small-world coincidence you must make a pact with to buy into the action–are the kind of thing that in less skilled hands emerge only as cute devices toward glib archetypes.

But after a few minutes, it becomes clear that Australian playwright Andrew Bovill, in this mildly Americanized version of his 1996 play, making its NY debut at the Gramercy, is onto something more thoughtful, more deep, more complicated and more elegant. For "Speaking in Tongues" isn’t about relationships per se–it’s about the language of relationships, the codes, –in all kinds of relationships–because after the couples do their dances (the dance of the illicit lovers, the dance of the married couples in the aftermath, the dance of the wives and husbands accidentally meeting their opposite numbers and who does and does not realize), the play expands to include the immediate community at large–how these relationships ripple out to touch and affect others…whereupon our quartet of actors (Karen Allen, Kevin Anderson, Margaret Colin and Michel R. Gill) take on second roles (Mr. Gill even assumes a third). What’s especially striking about the play is how much it is a succinct dramatic essay on the language of the times…this isn’t just a study of things spoken and unspoken, but of the specific self-consciously aware dialogue spoken by a society that has become too educated in the ways of modern psychology not to recognize transparent deceptions, within one’s own heart or the hearts of others. Bovill takes us on a subtle, complex and haunting trip, reflected in a subtle, complex and haunting structure, One that is exhilaratingly unpredictable to boot.

An abstract set (Richard Hoover) of mirrors and playing spaces defined by lights (Brian MacDevitt), levels and the barest minimum of furniture reflect the ever bifurcating depths of the play’s exploration of the ties that bind (and unbind), and under the direction of Mark Clements (who staged the original UK productions of the play), the four above-mentioned actors form one of the most memorable and finely meshed ensembles to appear on the NY stage in quite some time.

The press materials describe the piece as part psychological mystery-part thriller-part somethingorother, but that’s merely a way to try categorizing a thoroughly (and gratifyingly) uncategorizable play, for those who need some kind of box to put it in. Don’t worry about what kind of evening it is; and if what I’ve described seems skimpy on defining details, I want it to be. This is one in which the discovery along the way is half the reward…but only half…the other half is the memory of something truly unique…and nicely, edgily, feelingly, theatrically–quietly–groundbreaking and new…

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