Dull Angst and No Stakes Makes De Kus a Prickly Peck on the Cheek

The setup:

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Two strangers meet on a park bench. They start to talk and before you know it they’re sharing deep dark secrets about themselves that no one else knows. Usually the secret involves some challenge to be faced and either through humor, tense seriousness or a mixture of both, the characters walk away somehow a little better off. Or at least different than they were before they met.

A betting person could easily say that it’s Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story being talked about here. Or maybe David Mamet’s The Duck Variations. Or frankly any other of the numerous good and not so good ‘park bench scenario’ plays that are floating out there in the theatrical cannon.

In this case, it’s Dutch playwright Ger Thijs’s De Kus (The Kiss), with translation by Paul Evans, of which we speak. Set in a park in the Netherlands, the play considers two middle-aged nameless characters. Woman has decided to walk the three hours it takes to get to her doctor’s office, where news of possible breast cancer awaits. Man is a stand-up comedian out for an introspective hike who decides to walk along with Woman to her appointment.

The show, a co-production with St Louis’s Upstream Theatre, where the play premiered, is once again directed by Stages Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin, with St. Louis actors Lisa Tejero and Eric White reprising their roles in the production. It got great notices when it played in The Gateway City. But here in Houston, at this paper at least, those universal kudos come to an end.

The execution:

“CANCER!” screams Woman out into the wilderness, with only the Man as her witness. It’s supposed to be a point of high drama in Act 2. Woman has been cold, unemotional and prickly. Man has been trying to draw her out. But after more than an hour of watching these two throw dull, angsty small talk at each other, Woman’s literal and metaphoric cry lands in our ears like a thud.

Even Michael Hall’s glorious set design of birch trees and autumn leaves that (to this Canadian mind) beautifully references the visual splendor of Group of Seven landscape painter Tom Thompson can’t woo us into feeling deeply for the pair.

It’s not that Thijs hasn’t given them problems. Both Man and Woman have marriage, kid, work and what-do-I-do-with-the-rest-of-my-life issues. Woman may or may not have cancer, and Man may or may not be finished creatively. The problem with their problems is not that there are too few of them, but rather how über-earnestly the pair discusses them.

“I don’t want this," Woman says to Man of her potential cancer. Well, yeah, we think, noting that sometimes dialogue that may be true doesn’t necessarily make for great drama.

They talk and talk and we listen and listen, shifting in our seats waiting for some real stakes to appear to make the whole thing worthwhile. They argue, they misstep, they have a lightly comic moment, they stomp off, they come back. Of course they come back; after all, we know the play isn’t going to go on if one of them leaves. Even some surprising nudity onstage doesn’t do much to rouse us from the play’s leaden pall.

McLaughlin directs the pair as one-dimensional creatures, Woman as uptight/Man as affably jokey, and doesn’t allow them much breathing room even when different sides of them appear. As Woman, Tejero’s unmodulated tone belies not a woman striving for control but rather an actor settling for safe. Man has moments of great frustrated anger, but White’s failure to really go for it makes his bluster confusing.

Evan’s translation feels terse and claustrophobic for much of the play, working against the vast, woodsy setting. He does throw in some nice American references to make the show work for U.S. ears (Who are you, Dr Phil?), but the use of the pejorative “Missy” over and over again to describe Woman feels not just off the mark but oddly undermining.

The verdict:

Man gets the final scream near the end of the play. “Is there a point to all this?” he cries.

Yes indeed, we wonder.

We drive home in our cars knowing that for this play and that park bench, it’s a question that has no satisfying answer.

De Kus runs through October 30 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For tickets call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com. $21-$65.

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