Matthew Foster and Michael Poignard in Australian Made Entertainment's production of "Speaking In Tongues"

Matthew Foster and Michael Poignard in Australian Made Entertainment’s production of “Speaking In Tongues”

The first scene of Andrew Bovell’s 1996 play Speaking In Tongues features four characters — two men and two women — who share one dialogue about marital infidelity. All four, dissatisfied with their partners, pick up a stranger in a bar to consummate an adultery. It turns out that the four have randomly cheated on each other with each other, though the two couples are strangers to each other. The quartet share the same conversation, speaking the same speeches simultaneously. Chance — randomness, serendipity, long odds — only seemingly operates on these four; in fact, the rigid structure of the first act merely suggests coincidences that are relentlessly denied by the tight framework of dramatic irony.

If the first act were a geometric proof, the form under analysis would be a perfect square. On one side is the shy couple, and on the other is the passionate couple. To keep the action interesting the playwright works the opposite angles against the sides: the shy woman commits her crime with the passionate man, and the passionate woman finds self-restraint at the last moment; the shy man shows more moral courage than the passionate one. But these quirks are illusory, like the reflection in a true mirror. The second act, by contrast, is a study in asymmetry. Four new characters are connected by tangent to the characters of the first act, as fictions in a dream are connected to quotidian reality.

The second act is all vectors. The good characters send out communiqués without any chance of receiving a reply, and the bad characters use information as a javelin to pierce the good ones. The clearest asymmetry is drawn on the gender line: men have the power and women are its subject. This oblique relationship terrifies both the male and female characters, and it shows the dark side of the sun-kissed, broad-shouldered Australian psyche.

The deep structures of the play are masterfully interpreted by director Bryn Boice and scene designer James Fenton. The black box theater has been arranged with seats on two sides and mirrors lining the other two walls. During the first act the furniture is arranged symmetrically so that each couple is performing simultaneously to opposite audiences. The symmetry works against character development, which makes the first fifteen minutes a little disorienting, but the actors (Kathleen Foster, Matthew Foster, Laura Iris Hill, and Michael Poignard) do an outstanding job of pivoting one hundred and eighty degrees between mental states, making the initial confusion pleasant in its resolution.

But this is the opposite of glossolalia, known in English as “speaking in tongues.” As any good Pentecostal Christian will tell you, one speaks the universal human language — the one spoken by Adam and Eve — when one is touched by the spirit. Such communication defies three-dimensional geometry. This production of Andrew Bovell’s play, though very entertaining, is not an epiphany, a revelation, an apocalypse; instead it is a discourse leading inevitably and irrevocably to its necessary end.

Through December 16th

at Theater 54