AIDS is the illness that need not speak its name in Mouth to Mouth, Kevin Elyot’s lopsided study of romantic and creative inertia. The central character, a melancholic ectomorph in scuffed-up Nikes named Frank (David Cale), is first seen talking about a recent bout of eye surgery and a medical decision that his doctor believes is “tantamount to suicide.” But the disease that has necessitated this operation, that has caused Frank’s diarrhea and nightmares and gaunt appearance, that has put him on the verge of choosing a death sentence over the medications’ side effects, remains unmistakable yet unspoken.
The last quarter-century has seen a steady progression in theatrical representations of AIDS: consciousness-raising 1980s agitprop (As Is, The Normal Heart) was leavened the following decade with humor (Jeffrey) and epic mysticism (Angels in America) before settling into the laughing-through-tears mode of Rent and Love! Valour! Compassion! The looming specter may never be far from Frank’s sight (literally), but the disease is both common enough and manageable enough that it is merely part of his backstory.
However, any talk of Mouth to Mouth—which debuted in London in 2001—as a symbolic step forward would be misguided. For while this stagebound domestic drama, staged here by the New Group, qualifies in some ways as a post-AIDS play, several other aspects take a strangely retrograde stance toward gay life. From Frank’s occupation (tormented playwright with a yen for Proust) to his natty, catty, weepy narcissist of a dinner companion to a jarringly moralistic plot twist involving an ill-advised crush, Elyot has stubbornly reverted to the shame-filled days of pre-Stonewall drama. This squeamishness, coupled with Mark Brokaw’s path-of-least-resistance direction, all but nullifies Elyot’s occasional flashes of insight toward a group of people whose desires continually stand in the way of their principles.
Frank spends much of the play at the tastefully cluttered South London home of his longtime friend Laura (Lisa Emery). (The spartan but effective set design is by Riccardo Hernandez.) Laura has long ago shifted her affections away from her milquetoast husband, Dennis (Richard Topol), and toward their impetuous 15-year-old son, Phillip (Christopher Abbott), who has just returned from Spain with a tattoo and a few tango steps to demonstrate for—and with—his mother. This Oedipal stew is further seasoned by a surprise visit from Dennis’s loutish brother and striving sister-in-law (Darren Goldstein and Elizabeth Jasicki), who each bring their own displaced attachments.
“My life isn’t that interesting,” Frank confesses to Laura, “and if it were, I wouldn’t have the time to write about it.” He’s also loath to talk much about it, and large stretches of Mouth to Mouth consist of this diffident protagonist deferring to a series of solipsistic “friends” who occasionally remember to ask him a perfunctory question—and then start talking again before he can finish. Unfortunately, these scenes offer little in return: Elyot has a flair for actor-friendly monologues, complete with revealing tics and ear-catching twists, but few of them develop the narrative lift-off that’s required in the absence of a sufficiently galvanizing lead character.
For Frank is actually a bit of a bore. Cale successfully captures his character’s insecure need to ingratiate as well as his alternately protective and predatory impulses. But Andrew Polk is dismayingly one-note as the fey dinner companion, and not even the supremely talented Emery can pull off Laura’s highly artificial state of shock at the play’s climax. Brokaw does a poor job of keeping the characters’ British accents in order, and only Goldstein, Jasicki, and, to a lesser extent, Topol consistently hold their characters’ jabbering, fumbling positions within Frank’s fidgety orbit.
The periodic appearance of a supernatural force—a ghost? The manifestation of inchoate sexual unrest?—is intriguing at first and then annoying. Like so much else in Mouth to Mouth, it dangles the promise of unspoken depths before emerging as merely something to look at in lieu of providing something to say.