- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

Why is it we blurt out things to strangers that we would never tell our friends and family? What is it about instant intimacy that is so intoxicating? These urges are explored in Australian writer Andrew Bovell's clever and involving "Speaking in Tongues."
Intricately plotted, "Tongues" is half murder mystery, half encounter group. If your mind is fuzzy, better opt for a cup of strong coffee in the lobby before the curtain rises.
Mr. Bovell sprinkles all sorts of hints throughout the first two parts, and chance encounters and seemingly banal conversations take on ominous new meanings in the third part, which deals with the vanishing of Valerie (Jane Beard), a tightly wound therapist.
With its use of cinematic techniques of overlapping dialogue, shifting perspectives, fast-break scene changes and planted clues, it puts you in mind of movies such as "Memento," "The Usual Suspects" and even "The Vanishing." Like those movies, "Speaking in Tongues" has a random feel but is actually dense with connections.
The story begins as a facile treatise on the comfort of strangers and chance encounters. The first part deals with two sets of couples, Jane (Jane Beard) and Leon (Marty Lodge), and Pete (Andrew Long) and Sonja (Elizabeth Long). All four are married, but not to each other, and contemplating an adulterous one-night stand in a hotel room.
A king-size bed with a coverlet as red as the scarlet letter dominates the stage as the couples execute the tricky tango of would-be philandering. They speak the dialogue in unison or in echo. The men are rattled at the prospect of illicit sex, the women calmer and more deliberate. As they nervously pace the stage, you wonder which of the two couples will actually go through with it.
One couple does delve into cheating-heart territory, and the fallout from this act not only affects both of their marriages, but also extends outward into the community. If moral scruples aren't enough to keep you out of the no-tell motel, the ripple effect of the relatively "minor" act of adultery here is so eerie and deep that you might be spooked enough to lust only in your heart.
It would be a big spoiler to give out too much of the plot. Much of the pleasure in Mr. Bovell's too-clever-by-half writing is in discovering for yourself the relationships between the characters and the anecdotes they blithely tell one another, thinking they are jawing to a stranger and no harm will come of it.
There is a "Rashomon" quality to the play, as the same story is told over and over again, with each perspectival shift subtly shading the meaning. By the end, you don't know whom to trust, who is telling the truth and who is just spinning a tale.
The play's idiosyncratic structure is fun for the audience, but also maddening. Its themes of betrayal, cowardice, murder and adultery are inherently fraught with emotional and moral implications. But here these themes function as mere plot hinges. Mr. Bovell seems to be far more interested in engineering smoothly operational narrative machinery than in following his themes through to emotional or moral resolution.
As expert as the actors are, and Miss Long is particularly striking and innately sensual in dual roles, they fail to create believably human characters. Instead, they denote abstract concepts. Maybe it was the playwright's intent, but the characters lack moral cores. Nothing anchors them; they might as well revolve along with the rest of the scenery.
Perhaps we are not meant to like or care for these characters, who are either needy, self-absorbed or ethically adrift or a combination thereof. The most you can say about them is that they are modern. How ironic that a play about instant alliances fails to establish one with the audience.

**1/2
WHAT: "Speaking in Tongues" by Andrew Bovell
WHERE: Round House Theatre, Wisconsin Avenue and East-West Highway, Bethesda
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays. Through April 27.
TICKETS: $27 to $36
PHONE: 240/644-1100
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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