Sarah Ruhl’s comedy-drama, “Stage Kiss” is a jaunty over-the-top romp into the lives of actors reenacting a staged kiss that had brought them passionately together years earlier. How can one write an entire play about a “stage kiss”? Ruhl milks it for all it is worth, and then some. The kiss becomes the pivotal subject for a lot of mad-cap Marks brothers’ sketch or kvetch comedy. Yes, it is comedy out of the days of “I Love Lucy” or “The Carol Burnett Show.” And, the audience loved the somewhat hackneyed characters and set-ups and was tittering throughout the play. The writing was corny and lacked emotional depth, but was there supposed to be depth? At times, there were moments of reality-type messages but they seemed tongue in cheek.” If it is serious drama with a message you want, this is not the play. This play was full of giggles, groans, and laughs.
The premise is that two actors, who were former lovers, “She”, (Glenne Headly) and “He”, (Barry Del Sherman) find themselves thrust together when they are cast in the revival of an old 1932 Broadway flop called “The Last Kiss,” which is set to open in New Haven. The actors were lovers over twenty years ago, and the play rekindles their former passion and wreaks havoc on their present day lives. “She” is married to a man in finance, “The Husband” (Stephen Caffrey). While he is a solid and staid, husband, he loves her unconditionally and has put up with her flings. He always brings her roses at her openings. They have a sixteen-year-old daughter, Angela (Emily James), who is already an angry, outspoken teenager and is perhaps more grown up than her parents. Kudos to James, who brought a level of reality to the play. “He” has “an optimistic girlfriend,” who is a kindergarten teacher from Iowa, Laurie (Melody Butiu). Butiu can sing! But, when the Director (Tim Bagley) casts the two leads, he has no idea he is reigniting an old flame. Bagley is a delight as the overly permissive, directionless Director. His direction consists of telling the actors to “trust their instinct.”
Keith Mitchell’s sets added to the fun of the play. Act 1 was primarily the interior of a stage with brick walls, a small table, chairs, a piano, and slowly some props got added until we saw the fabulous, full-scale Art Deco stage set of “The Last Kiss.” Mitchell designed a backdrop for the New Haven opening that was wonderful complete with the title, stage, credits and had Ballinger’s sound warnings to be quite. It was clever how Mitchell gave us both the stage view and back stage view the actors were seeing. In Act 2, we saw the slovenly New York apartment “He” lived in. The music and sound design by John Ballinger added to the fun of this play. It gave a light “show biz” feel as Act 1 opened and carried the tone throughout the play.
As Act 1 opens, “She” (Glenne Headly) is auditioning. “She” has not acted in over ten years, and we see why. Her last role was in an “anti-depressant commercial” which was convincingly real. The parts that come her way now are either “for a maid or Lady Mc Beth.” Headly was so much fun to watch as the insecure, ditsy “bad actress” doing her interpretation of a 1930’s character, as she swayed, splayed, draped herself, and strutted. Yes, the actors play “bad actors” and do so convincingly with their over-the-top caricatures. I think of Mel Brooks play/film, “The Producers.” Clearly, Brooks was the maestro. Ruhl’s characters also play multiple parts. Well, that was good enough for William Shakespeare, wasn’t it? Ruhl’s play lacks the diamond brilliance of Mel Brooks and William Shakespeare, but non-the-less, shines. At times the play was contrived and insights got lost into the mad-cap comedy.
In “Stage Kiss” we get the play within a play as playwright Ruhl intersperses real life with acting life. There is a moment in Act 1 in which the lights dim and we get the inner thoughts of the two leads as they break the third wall. The lines of reality blur for the actors and for the audience. In a play, actors and kiss and the director yells “cut”, but in real life they can kiss and kiss. And, they do. “He” is a “Peter Pan in man pants,” and has a case of “arrested development.” But “She” comes to love him…. again.
Initially “She,” exercises restraint as she is directed to kiss “He”, who plays the character of Johnny Lowell to her Ada. In the “The Last Kiss,” Lowell also is a former lover, a sculptor who has moved to Sweden. “He”/ Lowell travels to New York when he learns “She”/Ava has a terminal disease and his passionate love and kisses cure her. Her husband tolerates and accepts Lowell and is grateful his wife is blooming again.
There were such funny kissing scenes with the understudy, “Kevin,” who has a “special relationship” with the Director. Matthew Scott Montgomery was a stand-out as Kevin. He has to kiss “She” and explains he is gay and the audience won’t buy his kissing a woman. He “makes a fish-face and kisses “like a placyderm.” To me, it looked like he” sucked face.” He was hysterically funny as the Pimp in Scene 2. Montgomery is great at physical comedy. This was an excellent casting choice.
There is yet a second play in which the two leads are again cast by the director for the Detroit Actors Theater. I am not giving that plot development away. It too was a fun romp with split levels and parallels of reality. There are some pearls of wisdom,and gem one liners that are almost lost amid the laughter and histrionics. They became “throw-aways.” Much is deliberately over-acted as the stylized 1930’s acting Headly does in character, the uber gay understudy Kevin, the cuckold husband, the angry teenage daughter, the cheated on Kinder teacher Laurie, it became high camp.
There are parallels in the real life story as well. Ruhl’s writing coupled with Bart de Lorenzo’s fast-paced directing, gave us theatrically contrived, silly-fun scenes and performances. The emotional depth is not there but the laughs are. In Act 2, there were a couple more scenes in which the “Husband” reflects on marriage versus passion. That was the closest to a wrap-up message the audience would get. Ruhl’s play was less about a message and emotional depth and more about having a good old time and laughing at the silliness of it all. If there was a message it was simple. “Marriage is about repetition.” And those married “sacrifice momentary pleasure for long time satisfaction.” Daughter, Angela had a great line, “Where are the grownups”? Not in this play! And, that was fine with me.
“Stage Kiss” runs at the Geffen’s main stage, 10886 Le Conte in Westwood, through May 15th. For tickets and show times, call 310-208-5454. Parking is available at Trader Joe’s on Glendon, second level or at the Bank of America underground parking.