In Lips Together, Teeth Apart, Terrence McNally's 1991 play staged by Arizona Theatre Company, we're treated to the spectacle of a weekend with two upscale couples at an expensive Fire Island beach house sipping their bloody marys out on the deck while hating themselves and each other. This is not the count-your-blessings crowd.

In playwright McNally's hands, this latest variation on domestic strife provides good theatre. Like Tennessee Williams, he mocks his miserable characters just enough to avoid psychoanalysis. He delights in pricking their smug, stuffy egos, and, oh, how they like to bleed.

Sally has inherited the valuable beachfront property from her gay brother, who has just died as a result of AIDS. She was never comfortable with his homosexuality, and her husband, Sam, is downright homophobic. After becoming convinced that the scantily clad gay neighbors have been eyeing him, Sam proclaims, "I'm gonna sit with my legs apart and smoke a cigar all weekend." The unseen neighbors alternately assault the couples with loud opera and Broadway show tunes on the stereo, but this straight-arrow bunch has no intention of intermingling.

Lips Together is fueled by brittle, self-deprecating humor that ranges from one-liners to the absurd: No one will swim in the pool, for example, because of the misguided fear of contracting the HIV virus through water. Meanwhile, they're all trying to convince each other that they're having a great time.

The relationships of the four characters in the play are further muddied by an adulterous affair. John, who's married to Chloe, has been sleeping with Sally. They've decided to break it off and think no one's the wiser, but of course their respective spouses have caught on; Sam and John end up in a fistfight over it. The cuckolded Sam and Chloe are brother and sister; thus, the couples' loyalties have been realigned.

What puts Lips Together, Teeth Apart above most other plays covering the same material is McNally's skill at ensemble writing. When McNally puts these four through their paces and they're playing off each other like a comedy act, McNally is probably peerless in current theatre.

A crucial element to this mix is the peripatetic Chloe. At first, she's irritating--she demands attention, she's loud, abrasive. She throws in French phrases just because "I'm bored with English." But without her, the other three would drown in their tears before the first act ended. Chloe believes that good food and drink equal instant happiness, and if that doesn't work, well, she's more than happy to break into one of her community-theatre musical numbers. And the neighbors? Maybe they're gay, but they've got great bodies, so she's ready with the chips and dip. When the foursome resorts to charades, you know the situation is desperate.

The actors, well-directed by Andrew J. Traister, keep Lips Together, Teeth Apart going on its crash course to nowhere. Leslie Hendrix as Chloe uses her character's energy as a guiding light, preventing the others from drinking too deeply from their own particular brands of despair.

Don Lee Sparks as Sam is expressive in a part that lacks eloquence in dialogue; he communicates through defeated gestures and tone, as if he isn't sure what body blow the next moment will bring. Linda Emond and Robertson Dean as the two more unattractive personalities show their comic flair when the opportunity presents itself; they use their one-liners as a respite from lives that seem unsalvageable.

After you've offered the requisite amount of compassion and sympathy, there comes a point when the misfortune of others actually becomes funny. Lips Together, Teeth Apart crosses that line, so while McNally deftly illustrates just how miserable and unhappy our lives can be, he also reminds us how funny they really are.

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Kathleen Ellison