Theater exists for several reasons, not least of which is to entertain. But it isn’t always easy to draw a clean line between real and illusion. And what of a stage kiss? Is it possible for an actor to engage in this most personal act of pretend while keeping those boundaries clear? Do stage antics creep into the psyche and personal lives of actors? Such questions are explored in Stage Kiss, Sarah Ruhl’s quirky but soulless comedy, playing at the Lyric Stage Company through March 26.
Ruhl, whose singular voice can sometimes be divisive, is a MacArthur Fellow, Tony nominee, and twice a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Most of her plays have touches of magical realism that sometimes pay off and sometimes don’t. While Stage Kiss is more grounded and accessible than most plays in her canon, so too is it a shallower work that doesn’t aim quite as high.
Two actors, who decades ago were in a heavy but ill-fated romance, reunite unexpectedly in rehearsals for a ridiculous melodrama that was a monstrous Broadway flop in 1932. They are referred to only as She (Celeste Olivia) and He (Alexander Platt), and once reunited they wonder if there are not the victims of some kind of joke. Contentious at the start, they fall back into some of their old rhythms as more and more time is spent rehearsing together. The trouble is, She is married with a daughter, and He is in a serious relationship with his schoolteacher girlfriend. The play is terrible, and they know it, but playing lovers onstage has reignited something inside of them. Or at least they think it has. By the time they open in New Haven, they are no match for their desires, and they hide away at his dreary bachelor pad, making love and eating Chinese food right out of the containers.
Stage Kiss's first act is charming enough, but the rehearsal scenes long outstay their welcome, and it begins to feel a bit like the movie Groundhog Day. While the second act moves along at a more lively clip, things turn incredulous pretty quickly, and after a while, it becomes difficult to feel invested in the story.
She’s husband, Harrison (Craig Mathers), and daughter (Theresa Nguyen) turn up miraculously at He’s apartment after She hasn’t been home for a few days. She has a history of falling for her costars, he says, and persuades her to come home. (Yes, Ruhl’s sandbox is one of exaggeration, but it is doubtful that Harrison would know His address and that anyone would be that understanding.) As luck would have it, the schoolteacher girlfriend, Laurie (Gillian Mackay-Smith), comes in with groceries just as this is all happening, also learning of their indiscretions.
Still, they decide to stay together. For the time being, anyway. Adrian (the always excellent Will McGarrahan), who directed the first act’s play-within-a-play, pays them a visit and tells them that he has another play for them to do in Detroit. Unlike the romance of the play that rekindled their affections in the first act, this time around, their onstage relationship is more contentious. Stage Kiss ends — finally — at a point of unredeemable incredulity.
The Lyric’s production, directed with warm finesse by Courtney O’Connor, is not at fault for the play’s shortcomings. More than anything else, the play is a vehicle to celebrate the chemistry between Olivia and Platt, who starred together in Chinglish several seasons ago. Oliva plays She with an aggressive lovability that is quite fun to watch, and Platt’s understated sexiness is a real asset. There is real magic between them, and that is one of the highlights of this production. Most of the laughs come from McGarrahan, who plays Adrian with a sarcastic, almost clueless irreverence, and Michael Hisamoto, who, in several roles, comes close to stopping the show at multiple junctures with his brilliant physical comedy.
Matt Whiton’s scenic design is limited to furniture pieces and an old-fashioned backdrop in the first act, but he shows his fine attention to detail in his rendering of He’s dingy New York apartment. There are some fun costume pieces, particularly for each of the plays, by Amanda Mujica (those feathers!), and Chris Hudacs’ lighting design is wonderfully detailed. Brandon G. Green’s fight choreography also deserves recognition, not only for how real it looks, but for how funny it often is.
As humorous as Stage Kiss frequently is, it is built on a paper-thin conceit that isn’t ultimately very interesting. Given the perilous state of politics in our country, many will find comfort in this trifle. But given everything that’s going on, and considering some of the timely and politically charged theater playing around town, it’s hard not to dismiss Stage Kiss as trivial.