Speaking in Tongues
Where: Belfry Theatre
When: Thursday. Continues through Feb. 24
Rating: 3 stars
Two pairs of characters enter a bedroom intending to cheat on their partners.
Although they share the stage, two parallel scenes are unfolding in tandem. In each, a man and woman flirt, hesitate, ask for details about one another’s partner and bask in the attention they’re not used to getting. Their narratives are layered to near syncing, in a risky move by playwright Andrew Bovell, and actors in separate narratives speak lines together — as if pointing to a universality in the experience, however cliché those lines may be:
“What we’re doing is all right, isn’t it?”
“I just want to feel something.”
It’s temporary but effective in introducing the core theme of Speaking in Tongues: connection.
Company Theatre, based in Toronto, has revived the 1996 play by Australia’s Bovell with the capable cast of Richard Clarkin, Jonathan Goad, Helene Joy and Yanna McIntosh.
Over the course of 21Ú2 hours, Bovell’s story approaches that theme through subjects such as infidelity — a search for new connection symptomatic of a weakened one — as well as through storytelling that gradually peels back layers, revealing a web of chance encounters with weighty consequences.
While the first half of the play centres on these four characters and their relationships, the second introduces five new ones and switches gears into suspense. A missing woman, the suspected drunk and a heartbroken man with nice shoes each play a role.
The second half is entertaining in an entirely different way. But the more sensational storyline makes it a bit less interesting — it becomes more about solving the mystery than about the human condition, or whatever good art is supposed to be about.
The best moments occur when Bovell lets his audience work a little bit — where the connections are left up to interpretation, rather than being revealed.
In one scene, for example, one of Goad’s characters tells his wife about exploding in rage at a stranger, then catching the stranger weeping. The weeping man will ultimately become a character in the play. But the scene stands strongly on its own, before that happens. It’s very different from the interactions we’ve seen so far, between the man and his wife. And the way they discuss the anecdote speaks to the way that people often project their existing relationships onto new ones they make.
The quartet of actors here is exceptional. Beyond the opening scene of syncronicity, these are demanding jobs, with each actor expected to play multiple and contradictory roles. There’s no weak link.
And while the men hold their own, the women are especially transformative. Joy moves from a nervous, fragile wife into a totally unsympathetic, heartless seductress. McIntosh is the confident woman at the height of her strength in middle age, then becomes a scared and lost psychologist, desperate for her husband to pick up the phone.
Some of the writing steps a bit too far from reality, particularly in the closing scene.
But overall, Speaking in Tongues is a show worth seeing. It’s challenging and entertaining. There are moments of comedy, drama and suspense, which is difficult to pull off.
And while many have called this a play about infidelity, it’s about much more than that: the coincidence and patterns in human relations, how each seemingly insignificant encounter may have much weightier consequences, as well as the difficulty of finding connection and keeping it.
© Copyright 2013