Cruel Summer

“Austin Lysy,” “Michael Chernus,” “Tracee Chimo,” “America Ferrera” in Terrence McNally’s “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” at Second Stage Theatre through November 23. | JOAN MARCUS

Austin Lysy, Michael Chernus, Tracee Chimo, and America Ferrera in Terrence McNally’s “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” at Second Stage Theatre through November 23. | JOAN MARCUS

Only the brilliant Terrence McNally can get away with setting a play in the gay wonderland of the Fire Island Pines and populate it solely with straight characters.

When “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” a quirky drama about two miserable married couples (a recurring motif this New York theater season) celebrating July 4th weekend in a beach house premiered in 1991, it felt as exhilarating as a plunge in the ocean on a steamy summer afternoon.

Yet the revival at Second Stage Theatre, helmed by Peter DuBois, is strangely soggy. Has time tempered this once-edgy piece — it was among the first to touch on the AIDS crisis and the resulting homophobia — or does the fault lie in misguided performances?

A bit of both, actually.

Revival of Terrence McNally Fire Island drama fails to generate heat

Sure, we get that Sam and Sally are uneasy staying in the house she inherited from her brother, David, who had recently succumbed to AIDS. After all, the seaside retreat is crawling with homosexuals. But that doesn’t mean Michael Chernus and America Ferrera must appear uncomfortable in their roles. Both deliver tentative, stiff performances that tend to distance us when we should be drawn in.

As the eternally chirpy Chloe trying desperately to fill awkward silences with jokes, songs, and jazzercise moves, the hilarious Tracee Chimo is working full-throttle, a jarring contrast to the other actors onstage. Austin Lysy brings a casual blandness to Chloe’s waspy husband, John, who lounges around doing a crossword puzzle on the deck in his pink chinos.

Complicating matters, two of the characters are having an affair, and Chloe and Sam are brother and sister who have a freaky bond. For most of the play I couldn’t remember who’s married to whom — none of the relationships feel genuine.

To be fair, the cast had a tough act to follow. The original production starred Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski, Anthony Heald, and Swoozie Kurz, several of whom were apparently in McNally's mind when he wrote the piece.

Since the debut of the play, which, for the most part, tiptoes around difficult topics like AIDS, many dramatic works, like McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” have tackled them head-on. As a result, “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” now feels timid.

Now and then the characters' anxieties — about thong-wearing gays, a possible suicide by drowning, marital infidelities, terminal illness, a secret pregnancy — are revealed via spotlighted interior monologues, underscoring their sense of isolation. Unfortunately, the asides feel forced, breaking the drama’s natural cadences.

I also have a quibble with the gay neighbor’s taste in music, which feels out of touch. On one side they are blasting Billie Holiday and Broadway show tunes; on the other side, Schubert and Ella Fitzgerald. As I recall, gay culture in 1990 was filled with dance music by the likes of Madonna, Deee-Lite, and Black Box featuring Martha Wash.

In the plus column, there’s a positive, albeit brief, portrayal of gay relationships. The wild sex act in the nearby bushes that Sam observes is followed by the men lying in each other’s arms and saying, “I love you.” The bug zapper, with its sinister neon blue light and periodic buzzes, is a poignant, chilling reminder of mortality.

There is one plot point that feels oddly topical. All four of them refuse to jump into the pool for fear of catching AIDS, not unlike the hysteria surrounding another deadly virus from Africa dominating today’s headlines.

The best thing about this version of “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” may well be the production design. Alexander Dodge’s gorgeous midcentury modern beach house, complete with a pristine, water-filled pool in the foreground, looks identical to one in the Pines designed by famed architect Horace Gifford.

Ultimately, you’re left with the feeling that the climactic fireworks, evoked by Justin Townsend’s lighting and Fitz Patton’s sound design, are more impressive than whatever fireworks are attempted in the muddled action onstage.

LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART | Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St. | Through Nov. 23: Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $79; at 2ST.com or 212-246-4422 | Two hrs., 35 mins., with two intermissions

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