By JOHN DeMERS
Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss, currently performed by Houston’s Stark Naked Theatre Company as a regional premiere, is a play about kissing on stage. But then again, we have it on the Bard’s authority that all the world’s a stage, don’t we?
This romantic comedy – which it is, though grittier and more insightful than that genre tends to be at the movies – asks questions right and left about what it means when we kiss someone. Onstage, of course, a kiss is technical, delivered without meaning deeper than the scene, often choreographed by a third party. It is, after all, mostly or even all about the paycheck. What happens, though, when the male and female actors giving that stage kiss had been wildly, youthfully in love many years before? And what happens when such passions reignite, despite dramatically different circumstances, one of them happily-enough married with a teenaged daughter?
Make no mistake: Stage Kiss delivers a ton of laughs, with its clever dialogue, its wry observations about the types of modern love, its sometimes-slapstick physicality and, most of all, its not-one-but-two (or three?) plays-within-plays. Both official set-pieces have themes that echo Ruhls’s main ideas, as they should: one a formal drawing-room melodrama from the 1930s, the other an allegedly realistic Lower Manhattan tale of a Northern Irish terrorist and a Brooklyn hooker. Both abound in ridiculous situations and over-the-top flights of dialogue, and both tend to support another of Shakespeare’s contentions: What fools these mortals be.
As directed by Brandon Weinbrenner, Luis Galindo and Stark Naked co-founder Kim Tobin-Lehl play the long-ago lovers, who initially have more trouble kissing onstage than strangers would but eventually, well, far less trouble. Galindo manages to be one of those intense physical forces, the kind it’s convincing that a woman would not forget even when she knows she’d been right to pack up. Tobin-Lehl carries the weight of the show’s changes and epiphanies. After all, she’s the one with the marriage and child to lose, she’s the one who’s been haunted by memories, and she is (for sure) the only one of the two capable of making a nuanced, grownup decision for a future in which the past makes you smile instead of cry.
Josh Morrison is excellent as a couple versions of the staid but oh-so-stable husband (an archetype for women, to be sure), and Jennifer Laporte is dead-on hilarious as the couple’s teenaged daughter with wisdom beyond her years. Finding her mother in a down-and-out NYC hovel with an actor-lover from her youth, she glances back and forth between them and simply scowls, “You people are assholes.” In many ways, that could be this play’s second title, except delivered by playwright Ruhl with sympathy and some affection.
Molly Searcy, Philip Hays and Stark Naked co-founder Philip Lehl fill out the cast with enthusiasm, Lehl in particular having fun flitting about the stage as The Director. His lines are a virtual lexicon of not-very-helpful directing clichés. In a kind of inside-baseball play-within-another-play, the Stark Naked actors are clearly taking delight in skewering those as long as they’re in the neighborhood.
Photo by Gabriella Nissen