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Civic Theatre stages off-Broadway hit ‘Lips Together, Teeth Apart’

Terrence McNally’s “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” is without question a comedy – but it’s “a comedy that hurts,” as one critic put it in 1991.

McNally places two middle-aged couples in a Fire Island beach house for an idyllic weekend – until he introduces the flaws in this paradise.

Nobody will swim in the pool because they’re afraid it might be contaminated with AIDS. One character has cancer. Three of the four people are involved in a love triangle.

Let the emotional skirmishing begin.

And the title? It’s no British stiff-upper-lip reference. These are neurotic New Yorkers, so the title is actually advice for how to fall asleep while reducing the chances of grinding one’s teeth during the night.

This show, which opens tonight at the Spokane Civic Theatre, was a major off-Broadway hit. It won a Drama Desk nomination for McNally, one of America’s top playwrights, best known for “Master Class,” “Love! Valor! Compassion!,” “The Full Monty” and “Ragtime.”

It shows off his talent for clever and cutting dialogue.

“The bright wit that has always marked Mr. McNally’s writing and the wrenching sorrow that has lately invaded it are blended deftly throughout three concurrently funny and melancholy acts,” wrote critic Frank Rich of the New York Times of the 1991 Manhattan Theatre Club production.

That production featured four actors who would go on to wider fame in movies and TV: Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski, Swoosie Kurtz and Anthony Heald.

The Civic’s production, in the intimate Firth J. Chew Studio Theatre, features Melody Deatherage as Chloe Haddock, Ron Ford as Sam Truman, Dave Rideout as John Haddock and Amy Nathan as Sally Truman. Wes Deitrick directs.

This cast list underwent a key change last week. Tami Rotchford was originally cast as Chloe, but she had to leave the show because of a family emergency. So Deatherage was brought in to take over the part only a week before opening.

For that reason, Deatherage may, understandably, still be carrying the script with her on opening weekend.

McNally fills the show with some of his enduring themes, including the slippery nature of truth and the difficulty of finding true love – straight or gay.

All four characters are heterosexual, but the beach house is in the middle of a gay community. The play includes a number of monologues, heard by the audience but not by the other characters.

“The playwright’s candor includes a willingness to let the play flow and ebb naturally, rather than crest in false theatrical climaxes,” wrote Rich.

“No secrets are artificially withheld from the audience, and both the medical and marital crises of the plot are delivered in asides to the audience in the opening minutes.”

The Civic cautions that this show features adult language and situations.

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