Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have to passionately smooch someone eight times a week in front of an audience? What if the person you were mackin' on happened to be your ex? And what if your family were watching from the front row? These are the questions at hand in Stage Kiss, Sarah Ruhl's new romantic comedy at Playwrights Horizons. The gorgeously articulate author of The Clean House and Eurydice is in top form with this delightful piece, which also happens to be the least "Sarah Ruhl-like" play she's written.
Stage Kiss concerns itself with the phenomenon of its title and how this affects lives offstage. At the play's center is a pair of unnamed actors, She and He (played by Jessica Hecht and Dominic Fumusa), who are cast opposite each other in the reworking of a long-forgotten 1930s melodrama. This pair, once upon a time, as it so happens, dated, a relationship burnished to the past until they again encounter each other on the first day of rehearsal. Their roles require them to get pretty physical, and quickly their kisses become the real deal.
While these two get deeper and deeper into a new relationship, their loved ones become cuckolded by their moves. The motives behind onstage osculation are a fascinating subject to ponder, and what Ruhl has created is both a passionate defense and rebuttal of promiscuity in the land behind the fourth wall.
The most enjoyable aspect of Stage Kiss is the way Ruhl has written not one, not two, but three plays to savor amid a two-hour span. The first is Stage Kiss proper, flawed, perhaps, but enjoyable thanks to Rebecca Taichman's precise mounting and excellent cast. The second is The Last Kiss, the fake 1930s melodrama in which the lead pair stars as a romantic couple whose relationship is rekindled when one is faced with certain death. The third, called I Love You Before I Killed You, or: Blurry, is best left unexplained.
Those last two are god-awful, but that's an intentional move. The Last Kiss and Blurry are terrible plays, and the leads are terrible actors. It takes a lot of skill to be bad, especially when you're as good as the real-life artists Ruhl, Hecht, and Fumusa. Ruhl provides the pair with a surfeit of sidesplitting moments where they can ham it up, and boy do they ever. It's just delicious to watch them sink their teeth into the silly '30s play and even more fun to see what they do with Blurry, where Fumusa stars as an agent of the Irish Republican Army with Hecht as his vision-impaired prostitute.
Most important, Hecht and Fumusa are on the exact same over-the-top page as the five other actors who make up the company. Downright hilarious are Patrick Kerr as the batty director who would rather allow the actors to do his work and Michael Cyril Creighton as the effeminate understudy for the overly masculine roles. The big-mouthed Emma Galvin as Hecht's character's daughter steals her scenes alongside the similarly fine Clea Alsip as Fumusa's character's girlfriend. Daniel Jenkins, as Hecht's lead's husband, does excellent work in the play's one straight role, but it's hard not to wish the part was more developed (indeed, the one major flaw of Stage Kiss is that Ruhl doesn't take enough time to introduce his character, and for that, her thesis suffers).
The daffy world is greatly enhanced by the creative team assembled by director Taichman. Susan Hilferty provides the sumptuous costumes, with appropriately theatrical lighting by Peter Kaczorowski and clear sound by Matt Hubbs. Todd Almond, Ruhl's frequent collaborator, provides original music, played live both onstage and off. Best of all is Neil Patel's highly realistic backstage brick-and-mortar set, which can dazzlingly change perspective with the mere drop of a curtain.
You may find yourself wondering at times during Stage Kiss why everything (except the plays within the play) seems so darn naturalistic. After all, Ruhl is an author who specializes in a largely unexplored twilight zone of magical realism, where two people can be quietly talking and a third could suddenly enter as a literal deus ex machina. Ruhl wisely realizes here that she doesn't need to heighten the reality. Stage Kiss is set in the world of theater. And in theater, reality is heightened enough as it is.