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“No notes. We can calibrate the style after the preview. For now, trust your performance.” This unhelpful and ambiguous stage direction comes courtesy of the comically inept Adrian Schwalbach, director of the soap opera-esque, risible play within a play that makes up Sarah Ruhl’s cleverly silly Stage Kiss. But rather than simply another example of how the widely celebrated and oft awarded Ruhl blends realism with the loopy, here it seems that some of Schwalbach’s directorial faults have bled over into real life in Brandon Weinbrenner’s production that’s more flat than fizzy.
An uber Meta, solipsistic look at actors and the theater, Stage Kiss aims to cast a smart but humorous eye on the often blurred lines between real and fake. A pair of former lovers, He (Luis Galindo) and She (Kim Tobin-Lehl) ended things the way most lovers do, badly. So it’s not exactly comfortable when some 20 years later they find themselves cast as ex-lovers falling back in love in the revival of a certifiable Broadway flop now being staged in New Haven. As the two are put through the rehearsal paces by Schwalbach (Phillip Lehl) issues of their own failed relationship bubble up. She cheated on him. He threw things and scared her. They were both baffled by each other. She’s now married to a sensible briefcase toting wealthy husband (Josh Morrison) and the mother of a teenage girl (Jennifer LaPorte). He is dating Laurie (Molly Searcy) an irritatingly nice schoolteacher. Yet He and She’s attraction to each other remains strong. Or maybe it’s just their character’s attraction that’s drawing them together. After all, the horribly melodramatic play they’re rehearsing requires that they kiss no less than 288 times. Is it life imitating art or art imitating life? And which is better in the end, real or fake love? These are slippery question in Ruhl’s hands and she has a grand time playing with it and us in her script. So then why are we feeling so meh about the whole thing?
While Ruhl may be able to play with false vs real love in her play, chemistry is something that can’t be faked. Unfortunately together, Tobin-Lehl and Galindo have none. Thankfully we aren’t subjected to all of He and She’s hundreds of kisses, but the ones we do watch are cringe worthy in their sparklessness and often creepy in just how unsexy or awkward they are. Even when flirting with each other, the pair don’t seem game to really go for it, instead delivering about as much heat as a conked out radiator. Similarly, the over the top scenes of the play within the play where the exes declare their undying love for each other with hackneyed lines comparing kisses to cherries is sapped of all their grandeur. Weinbrenner has He and She deliver it like the poor actors they are, but he seems to lose the fun in it all. Rather than go full tilt Dynasty/Dallas style in a ‘there is no such thing as too much’ kind of treatment, Weinbrenner tones his leads down to simply untalented, leaving us not much to get gleeful about other than how deliciously badly written Ruhl manages to make the Meta dialogue.
In fairness to the production, He and She are not exactly endearing characters to begin with nor do we really understand their attraction to each other in the first place. She is flighty with a nervous laugh and little more to her personality. He is acerbic and not much else. What do they see in each other and what should we see in them? Ruhl has given us this challenge before in her work, most notably in her early effort, Late: A Cowboy Song, where her young married couple are an unaccountable and unlikeable mismatch. But while the character issues in Late can be put off to immature writing, here Ruhl knows what she’s doing when she makes the pair a blank canvas for strong performers to inject life into. He and She are cloaks to be put on and have fun with. Shame then that Weinbrenner has his performers wear the characters more like tight fitting waistcoats.
However what the leads lack in this production of Stage Kiss, the supporting cast offsets by offering up a bounty of splendidly comedic performances. As the real husband, Josh Morrison may not get any funny lines per se, but his suited, hulking figure and reasonable personality paints a humorous juxtaposition next to his wife’s ill-considered infidelity. Playing the fake husband in Act 1’s play within a play, Morrison allows his dying wife to cavort with her ex-lover in a wonderfully put upon but nevertheless cool and classy performance that rides a terrific line between tragic and comedic. Jennifer LaPorte as She’s real and fake daughter does great justice to the moody young adult genre. Both when deriding her mother for cheating on her father (real daughter) or expressing exasperation at constantly being cast as 17 year old when she is really 23 (fake daughter), La Porte shrugs and shuffles and whatevers her way through her satirical lines and more than keeps our eyes on her whenever she’s onstage. As a nervous and bumbling directorial assistant among other characters, Philip Hays uses his considerable tall lank to great comedic advantage in a constant series of slouches, twitches and just about anything else he can think of to show his discomfort with every task and role he’s asked to do. Standing in for an injured He as She’s lover in rehearsal allows Hays to play up his awkwardness to a tee and provide a much needed respite from the blahness of the lovers’ scenes. Molly Seary as He’s girlfriend Laurie displays the most talent of the bunch in her ability to milk laughter out of a well-timed pause and a hearty chuckle from merely an expertly raised eyebrow.
But it’s Lehl’s bespecled, pageboy-hatted, slightly effete, horrendous director Schwalbach that really brings the play’s comedy to life and it’s this character that Ruhl saves her best dialogue and plot turns for. After producing the New Haven show in Act 1, Schwalbach decides to indulge his writing bug and pitches his own play to He and She (now a couple) to star in. A play of course even more unrealistic and ridiculous than the one they already worked on. Lehl’s delivery of Schwalbach’s pitch to the couple is nothing short of hysterical in both content and delivery. His play is a violent and tragic tale about an Irish IRA thug and a Brooklyn prostitute with bad vision who dreams of opening an eyeglass shop, he explains with utter excited seriousness in show stealing fashion. Titled, I Loved You Before I Killed You (or Blurry) the new play within the play rehearsal and performance takes over Act 2 and proves a much better outlet for Tobin-Lehl and Galindo whose lack of chemistry here is more or less overshadowed by Ruhl’s wildly creative absurdity. If the play in Act 1 was meant to closely mimic the lovers’ own past, it seems the play in Act 2 is a metaphor on who they’ve become – a thug and a whore. Or maybe Ruhl is just playing with us for kicks. Either way it makes for a satisfyingly funny and busy second act
Speaking of busy, if it seems like there’s a lot of locales going on in the two-ish hour play, you’d be right. No less than five locations in this script call for some creative scene swaps in the small space and kudos should be paid to designer Jodi Bobrovsky for an ambitious array of sets that bring rehearsal spaces, fully set stages and a seedy NYC apartment to life. Kudos should also be paid to the stage crew for literally striking and setting up the stage with such effectiveness several times over.
In fact, tearing down and rebuilding effectively could be apt descriptor for Ruhl’s too neatly constructed conclusion. It’s her one false move. Instead of carrying the real/false playfulness to a thoughtful or ambiguous conclusion, she instead lands firmly on one side of the divide.
It’s an unexpected ending from Ruhl who more than often leaves several dangling threads or head scratches as her takeaway. Those that follow her work are used to the feeling of not knowing where reality ends and the surreal or unreal begins. Stage Kiss is by far the most conventional and comedic of Ruhl’s plays and ambiguity is just not in the cards here it seems. There’s no doubt that this makes it a far more accessible play, one that a wider audience can access and enjoy. Perhaps the head scratch for those of us that already know Ruhl’s work and her chimerical take on the human condition is whether we really want to share her with the masses all.
Stage Kiss continues through June 20 at Studio 101, 1824 Spring Street. Purchase tickets online at starknakedtheatre.com or by phone at 832.866.6514. $12 - $40.