by Ron Cohen · March 2, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #55 Ron Cohen looks at Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss at Playwrights Horizons.
There is a frothy ambience overlaying Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss, but as is usual in this playwright’s work, the froth, while especially delectable here, is the frosting over some provocative thinking. In this case, Ruhl is weighing the potency of the seductive artifice of theater, especially as played out in the technique of stage kissing, against the generally less exciting patterns of everyday life. It is, of course, the ages-old conflict setting romantic yearnings against the rigors of reality, and Ruhl explores it with intriguing layers of dramaturgical complexity. Her plot sets art (or at least the art of very bad playwriting) in motion to imitate life and vice versa. In the process, she has a lot of fun spoofing the clichés of high-toned old-timey romantic drama and the foibles of theatre people, especially actors.
The heroine of Stage Kiss, identified only as She, is an actress returning to the stage after years spent tending to her husband and daughter. She is cast in a revival of a Broadway flop from 1932, but it’s a play the director feels with proper handling will be liked by the audiences of New Haven, where the show will be performed. She will be playing a lady with a terminal illness and a devoted husband, and who turns out to be her leading man, portraying a still hunky lover from her past? None other than She‘s own still hunky lover from her past. As passion fires up with the help of stage kissing, She -- as well as the character she is playing -- is torn between her devoted husband and her reignited amour.
There are moments when the reality and make-believe become so intertwined, things verge on a Pirandello-like surrealism. Then there is the long scene in the second act when She, She’s husband, He and He’s current girlfriend battle it out in He’s scruffy apartment, and it seems like an appreciative take on Noel Coward’s Private Lives. All this adds to the play‘s oddball texture. There are, less felicitously, passages when Ruhl and her nicely complementary director Rebecca Taichman seem to slip into the anything-for-a-gag mode of a Mel Brooks. But such talents, I guess, are entitled to do a little trolling for laughs now and then.
In the end, Ruhl gets trenchantly to the heart of her thesis, when the husband tells She he wants her to teach him how to act. “I want you to take me to a theater and kiss me once a week, and pretend I’m someone else… Kiss me in a place with no history and no furniture.” The words -- especially the phrase “and no furniture” -- ping with Ruhl’s distinctive conjuring of a poetic magic realism.
Under Taichman’s nimble direction, this production of Stage Kiss exudes a bright polish. (The play was earlier mounted at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.) As She, Jessica Hecht gives a bravura performance, her characteristic vocal quirks perfect for the uncertain woman giving her nervous all in a less-than-propitious return to the stage -- and to an old flame as well. Dominic Fumusa provides a fervent foil as her leading man, and Daniel Jenkins is a solid counterweight as her husbands, both on and off stage. Adding to the spoofing side of things are Patrick Kerr as an amusingly ineffectual director and Michael Cyril Creighton as a bumbling but always-ready understudy. Rounding out the cast are Emma Galvin, playing She’s real and make-believe daughters plus a stage maid as well; Clea Alsip playing She’s make-believe pal and He’s young lover, and Todd Almond, as the pianist for the play-within-the-play. Almond also wrote the incidental music and tunes for the productions’ songs that seem wickedly out of place.
Also noteworthy are the set designs of Neil Patel and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting, which aid immeasurably in helping define the illusionary and the actuality, as demanded and often blurred by this tricky script.