243. STAGE KISS
Sarah Ruhl’s Pirandellian combination of backstage farce and romantic comedy, STAGE KISS, now at Playwrights Horizons, is a frequently amusing, sometimes very funny play about how easy it is for actors to confuse reality with illusion. It is also often flat, forced, and overly implausible, resulting in a work that makes its point too often to sustain the same level of interest for over two hours (with one intermission); stylistically, it slides uneasily between broadly comic situations and more serious ones, creating a tonal slipperiness that mirrors that supposedly afflicting the play-within-the play that starts the action going; it also comes dangerously close to being a one-joke play. Still, large parts of it are very well-written and memorably charming, benefitting from delightful performances that continue to rattle about in your cranium well after you’ve kissed the show goodbye.
Dominic Fumusa, Jessica Hecht. Photo: Joan Marcus.
It begins in a rehearsal studio where She (Deborah Hecht), a married actress with a teenage daughter, whose career has been floundering (two auditions in 10 years), is reading for the Director (Patrick Kerr); the project is a revival of something called The Last Kiss, a flop romantic drama from 1932, for a Connecticut theatre. The scene, about a dying woman who wishes to see once more her former lover, captures with considerable humor the tics of such auditions, with a cautiously polite but persistently questioning actress and a director who hasn’t a clue to what he’s doing and is willing to let his actors try whatever they wish. The play’s already-cast leading man, He (Dominic Fumusa of “Nurse Jackie”), turns out to be She’s former lover, and the play they’re in reflects their personal situation. Soon enough, as they get into the stage kissing the play requires, their old feelings for one another are ignited, despite her marital situation and his current live-in relationship with a pretty schoolteacher, Laurie (Clea Alsip).
Dominic Fumusa, Daniel Jenkins, Jessica Hecht. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Scenes fly by as we watch the rehearsals and the show finally opens, each scene adding new scenic units to the space until we find ourselves at the opening night curtain call, with the actors facing upstage into the black maw of an imaginary audience. Neil Patel’s scenic concept works beautifully for the first act, and then provides a scenic about turn in act two, when the play moves to He’s grungy East Village apartment. The idea for a new play, I Loved You Before I Killed You, or: Blurry, starring He (as an Irish-accent mangling IRA agent) and She (as a Brooklyn-accented prostitute), arises here, and its set, inspired by the apartment, becomes an only slightly altered mirror image of it. Designer, playwright, and director (Rebecca Taichman) have done nice work in realizing physically the confusion between reality and illusion underlining the play’s structure. Other technical elements, including the spot-on costumes of Susan Hilferty, the creative lighting of Peter Kaczorowski, and the pastiche-style music of Todd Almond, make worthwhile contributions.
The plot works out the kinks in He and She’s relationship, in that of He and Laurie, and in that of She and her Husband (Daniel Jenkins) and angry daughter, Angela (Emma Galvin). In a sense, She’s resolution brings to mind the family-friendly conclusion of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY; a fling may be fine but long-term stability is much better. There are lots of theatre in-jokes; some slapstick hilarity with an effeminate actor, Kevin (Michael Cyril Creighton), trying to play butch; and enough stage kissing (and thoughts about what it means) to ensure that the actors keep cartons of Chapstick piled on their dressing room tables. One bit that gets a big initial laugh but wears out its welcome by repetition is when Kevin, serving as He’s standby, tries to kiss She, but can only do so with his mouth agape as if trying to eat her.
Most of the actors play multiple roles, some with wig changes and some without, and all prove capable farceurs. The ultra-slender Ms. Hecht, with her well-known birdlike mannerisms and flutey vocal delivery, is more on target here than I found her in last season’s THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES, and she displays notable technical artistry in the way she plays her eccentric character’s sudden transitions. She has more command of the play’s farcical demands than does Mr. Fumusa, although he has a naturalness and warmth that make him gradually more engaging. He completely lacks the sophistication required by the character he plays in the first play-within-the play, but that’s part of the joke. Mr. Kerr is terrific as the nebbishy, bearded director, and Mr. Creighton practically steals the show as the swishy standby Kevin and the pimp he plays in the second play-within-the-play, especially in a scene when he’s trying to shoot someone and the sound effects timing is off.
Ms. Taichman’s direction extracts the play’s comic values but can’t do much to make it more believable. Still, when the tonal elements come together in the performances and writing, the play clicks nicely into place. It’s just too bad this doesn’t happen quite often enough to overcome the times when, like the gun that goes off prematurely or too late, the elements don’t properly converge. While I’m not ready to lock lips with STAGE KISS, I’m okay with sending it an air kiss or two.