Speaking of Theater
by Jerry Beal
Speaking in Tongues, by Australian playwright Andrew Bovell, was presented at the Roundabout Theatre in New York in 2002, then made into the film Lantana. This October, my production of the play just finished a seven-performance run at William Paterson University, my 20th production there. The power and the theatricality of the piece, abetted by a sterling cast of four, struck a chord with audiences, as evidenced by the reception and discussion each night. Bovell’s sense of theater and its unique possibilities is extraordinary, and make this a play worth revisiting.
The first scene shows two couples in two motel rooms, preparing for mutual affairs. The dialogue is coordinated and often simultaneous. In the second scene, in two living rooms, we see that the initial coupling was with each other’s spouse; the dialogue is again overlapping, with one member of each pair confessing and the other realizing there was mutual culpability. The third and fourth scenes respectively show the two husbands at a chance meeting in a bar, then the two wives in another bar.
It is at that point Bovell’s craft kicks into overdrive. Returning to the living rooms, in successive scenes we see first one husband then one wife relate an extended story about a disturbing experience they’ve just had. The husband’s purpose in telling his story is to show his wife his remorse and need for her. The wife’s purpose is to show her husband why their marriage is failing. Each of their stories brings in characters who very much whet our appetites. And sure enough, intermission arrives and ends, the lights come up on the action, and the actors have become the characters described in the two stories. By play’s end, we have been brought into these people’s worlds and seen the connections with all that preceded this in the first act.
Through this dazzling, non-chronological inventiveness, Bovell delves into an array of profound and basic themes. Isolation, miscommunication, passion, betrayal, the difficulty of really knowing someone, loneliness—indeed, the very fact of human interaction impeded by our frequent and perhaps intrinsic need for a pattern of speaking in tongues. With the proper cast, suitably evocative lighting, and a set that helps tell the story, this is a play for those who thrive on theater.
October 29, 2012
Jerry Beal is Assistant Professor of Theatre at William Paterson University. He earned his undergraduate degree at Brandeis University and a master’s degree in directing from Brooklyn College.
Photo: Australian playwright Andrew Bovell