In ways both good and bad, Quantum Theatre's production of Mouth to Mouth operates on artificial respiration. Kevin Elyot's drama seems curiously dated even given its initial outing in 2001, and one does have to jog the old memory to remember when mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was known as "the kiss of life." Mouth's characters tend to offer a kiss of death -- or at least the stench of death, dark secrets and betrayals -- and not just the guy who's actually dying of an unnamed but AIDS-like ailment.
On the upside, the artifice floating on the surface of this British drama masks intermixed layers of illicit and interesting passions. With just a few scratches, one finds that none of these "very nice" middle-class people is really nice, talking "at" rather than "with" each other. None is without pretense. None is without sin. To discuss particular secrets and private sins here would be unfair to future play-goers; in retrospect, the domestic tragedies aren't such big surprises anyway, though in the flow of the play they deliver jolts of varying impact.
Most of the play is told in flashback by a dying, dried-out writer, wonderfully fleshed out by Ken Bolden. In the present tense, his conversation is a comic series of false starts with an egotistical friend/physician, played by James FitzGerald. But most of the action is between Bolden and Karla Boos. She portrays a ripely passionate and enigmatic woman whose identity -- no, her entire being -- is subsumed by an Oedipal devotion to her son and only child (a somewhat too mature-looking Eric Anderson). Their mutually seductive tango is the high point of the action. There are several low points, too, painfully embarrassing for the various characters, like ripping off emotional flesh.
Director Ronald Allan-Lindblom makes the most of a richly talented cast, filled out by John Shepard as the clueless husband, Jeffrey Carpenter as his loutish brother and Robyne Parrish as his cheerily dim wife. Tony Ferrieri's faultless set evokes the world of upper-middle-class Brits; applause also to sound designer Elizabeth Atkinson for motorcycle effects, and to costume designer Loren Shaw and lighting designer C. Todd Brown.
Moving with speed if not always with purpose, Mouth to Mouth dissects the charms and narcissisms of its characters with a wicked wit and a few surprises.
Mouth to Mouth continues through Feb. 22. Quantum Theatre at 121 Seventh St., Downtown, 412-394-3353 or www.proartstickets.org