NEW YORK—Real love means more than sex, passion, and living for the moment. It also takes into account responsibility, routine, and change. This lesson is brilliantly imparted in Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss, now having its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons.
As the show begins, an actress, who is called “she” (Jessica Hecht), auditions for a revival of a rather creaky 1930s play. She gets the job only to learn that the man, called “he” (Dominic Fumusa), who will be playing her lover, actually was her lover more than 20 years earlier. That relationship ended rather badly.
The actress eventually married and had a daughter (Emma Galvin), while he is now involved with someone else (Clea Alsip). Despite misgivings about working together in a play ominously called Last Kiss, they both resolve to act professionally only to find old passions reigniting whenever they lock lips on stage.
The basic idea could be played for laughs, drama, pathos, or all of the above. Ruhl takes the latter route with results that are wonderful indeed.
The entire first act takes place between the aforementioned audition and the show’s opening night and is basically a send-up of the entire theatrical process.
From companies reviving shows that have no business being revived in the first place, to watching a director (Patrick Kerr) who likes to just throw everything on stage and see what happens, to problems that occur when understudies have to go on unexpectedly, the different scenes are all played perfectly straight for maximum comedic effect.
There is also a somewhat misguided and very funny attempt to choreographic a stage kiss and a wonderful explanation about why live stage productions are so superior to films.
The plays within the play they’re performing in—and there are more than one—also come with various accents, ludicrous overacting, and sudden musical interludes, the last courtesy of some excellent work by Todd Almond. These add to the overall hilarity.
Things turn darker in Act 2 as the reunited lovers try to pick up things where they left off long ago, only to be confronted by their own emotional baggage and unresolved issues that may prevent them from moving forward together.
Each is at a different level of maturity and wants different things from the other. This disparity becomes a running theme throughout the play.
Adding more problems for the two are the unexpected arrival of his girlfriend and her husband (Daniel Jenkins) and daughter, all of whom have no intention of going away quietly.
It is Ruhl’s continual blending of the different genres that make the play so worth watching, uproarious at one moment and completely serious the next.
Especially good is a musical transition sequence during a confrontational scene that comes off perfectly.
Credit must also go to Rebecca Taichman’s letter-perfect direction as she helps guide the actors through the transitions of mood and place, enabling the performers to deliver their lines for maximum effect.
Instrumental to the overall success of the work is Sam Pinkleton’s choreography and Matt Hubbs’s sound design.
Hecht is great as a somewhat neurotic, yet quietly professional actress, mother, and wife who finds herself wondering if she can go back to a point in her life when anything was possible.
However, she soon finds her past and present in direct conflict with no easy solution in sight. As she tells her former lover at one point, “I left you for a reason”—a reason that may still exist all these years later.
Fumusa is good as her boyfriend from the past, sadly not given as much depth on the page as his onstage romantic counterpart. Yet he comes across well as a decent actor who likes to live in the here and now, albeit with an emotional maturity that changed little in the past two decades.
Kerr is an absolute hoot as the Last Kiss director, a quietly agreeable man with his own particular vision of how things should be staged, even though he may not always be able to properly articulate his point of view. Yet he is eventually able to get the job done.
Kerr is also responsible for some of the more quietly hilarious moments in the show, such as when he tries to block a scene without the set in question being present.
Michael Cyril Creighton does a nice turn with various roles, including an understudy turned very awkward leading man and a pimp who has no idea how to hold a gun.
Jenkins is very good in the pivotal role of a husband not at all surprised with his wife’s affair. The husband is also the one person in the show who has his life most together, loving his wife for who she actually is, rather than what she once was or could someday possibly be.
Nicely envisioned and wonderfully executed, Stage Kiss offers a hilarious and rather plain-spoken lesson about what real love is all about. Good work by all.
Playwrights Horizons’s Mainstage Theater
416 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or visit ticketcentral.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Closes: March 23
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.