It's a wonder gay-rights activists aren't out picketing the New Group production of the 2001 West End play Mouth to Mouth - with backup, perhaps, from a cadre of riled dramaturgs. Character volte-faces are all very well, but British playwright Kevin Elyot keeps switching genres midstream, from contemporary drama to comedy of manners to Greek-scale tragedy.
What we know from the outset is that Frank (David Cale), a blocked writer, is coping with AIDS, and that Laura (Lisa Emery), his companion at the kitchen table, is so stricken, she can't speak. Her grief could just be a reaction for Frank's plight, but the full reason won't emerge for several flashbacks and flash-forwards.
Frank earns the audience's empathy as well, as he dines with his prima-donna gay doctor (Andrew Polk's mood swings are hilarious, as is the precious menu he slavers over) and hangs out with Laura and her relatives: her 15-year-old son, Phillip (Christopher Abbott), brimming with youthful life force, her remote dentist husband, Dennis (Richard Topol ) Dennis's boorish brother, Roger (Darren Goldstein) and Roger's inane wife, the "utterly irritating" Cornelia (Elizabeth Jasicki), who, Laura marvels, "has taken up Anglo-Saxon - as a hobby!"
Jasicki is actually pretty adorable as a twit who knows she's one: it's not that far a leap from Jasicki's role in the New Group production of Abigail's Room three years ago, in which she was also similarly paired with Goldstein. There's a bit too much deja vu in this repertorial reconfiguration. Emery, at least, who played the repressed mother of unseen, partying Abigail, is given greater range here, but the playwright also charges her with an insuperable task in terms of credibility: What mother, afflicted with the unthinkable, develops a stutter?
Frank, that harmless family friend, has done something unspeakable, yet he - in whom we've invested our sympathy and trust - appears to see nothing wrong in his action. It strikes him, rather, as a promising plot device - as indeed it might be, in the realm of soap opera. Extrapolated to the real world, however, the implication is simply offensive - a caveat to parents imprudent enough to cultivate gay friends.
The experience for the audience - despite a polished production enhanced by Riccardo Hernandez's adaptable, minimalist set and mood music by David Van Tieghem - is one of calculated manipulation. Though Frank initially seems like a nice enough fellow, we end up feeling that we too have been had.