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Like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Bess Wohl was an actor before she was a playwright. Her experimental 2015 play Small Mouth Sounds might’ve been inspired by a game much beloved by parents of young children, Who Can Stay Quiet the Longest.
It follows a half-dozen participants during a silent retreat at some sort of rustic New Age property, where they’ve paid a presumably hefty sum to be briefly liberated from the soul-eating distractions of frivolous talk. While they occasionally break the rules and speak, long passages of the show, that in Ryan Rilette’s sturdy production for Round House Theatre runs about 100 minutes, are wordless. That’s a challenge that must have appealed to the actors—three women and three men—playing the campers, most of whom are familiar to Round House audiences. The exception is Andrea Harris Smith, a Round House first-timer who plays a woman attending with her partner (Beth Hylton) and finds that silence emboldens her curiosity about life beyond what we infer has been a long relationship.
The other new face in the company is, well, a voice: Timothy Douglas, who, as the heard-but-not-seen instructor, perfectly captures the addled pretension and vapid sloganeering of so many self-help gurus. “I recently acquired e-mail. It is very convenient,” he bloviates, his crawling cadences implying a thought too complex for language. He fumbles for the name of that machine people use to mow lawns.
Watching the half-dozen actors react to their suspicion of their supposedly tech-abjuring teacher’s credibility when, for example, his phone keeps ringing in the middle of a session, is amusing, and their silent negotiations for contraband or sex are, too, even if they sometimes feel like acting class exercises. Annie Baker’s play Circle Mirror Transformation, which is actually set in a community center acting class, trafficked in similar micro-observations of behavior, and Baker has pushed its silences further with each subsequent show. In Small Mouth Sounds, Wohl actually beats Baker in that old parental game.
To Sept. 23 at 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. $50–$67. (240) 644-1100. roundhousetheatre.org.