Monday, May 16, 2011
Imagine ending an intense love affair years ago. Then imagine you are an actor who has just been cast in the romantic lead of a new play. Now imagine that your stage partner is your ex, with whom you must share a number of passionate kisses.
Could you play these scenes without old feelings intruding? Would you draw on these old feelings to make the play authentic, even if it endangers your real-life marriage, family, or relationship? What if old love was rekindled?
That is the intriguing premise of "Stage Kiss", a new play in the Goodman Theater series, written by Pulitzer nominee Sarah Ruhl ("In the Next Room or the vibrator play", "The Clean House"). It succeeds as farce, deftly weaving the actors' reality with their stage persona in the first act, then digging deeper in act two for a darker tone, and a resolution to the intrusion of their art into their lives, and vice versa.
Act One is definitely the more successful. In fact, it's a breezy and affectionate satire on theater. We meet She (Jenny Bacon) during an appropriately embarrassing audition, with a stand-in (Jeffrey Carlson, who is wonderful in multiple comic characters) and a director (Ross Lehman) who is comically inept. The play-within-the-play is a long-forgotten 1930's bedroom comedy, and She is required to play a socialite who can sing. Soon, she meets He, her male lead and lover of years past (Mark L. Montgomery), and the old passions and conflicts immediately resurface.
During a slapstick rehearsal period, in which their stage characters provide us a glimpse into the relationship that once was, we learn about who they are now (She is married with a daughter, He is a Peter Pan moving from girlfriend to girlfriend). The play they're in allows them to rekindle their affair, with their characters providing enough fantasy to cloak the truth of their infidelity.
From the giddy, romantic one-upsmanship of the leads, to the bit players' bumbling and upstaging; from hilariously Bad Dialogue to wobbly backdrops that keep threatening to fall down; Act one gives us the pleasures of an old-fashioned comedy with an original premise that is not at all far-fetched.
The small cast skillfully plays broad physical comedy, and charm us with their mischief, as Ruhl's dialog and impossibly goofy situations unfold rapidly like a live-action version of "Purple Rose of Cairo". Bacon and Montgomery find the right nuances in their "real" characters, so that they are recognizable as they inhabit their stage "characters". The audience is brought right into the middle of the fun, and while we're laughing, we have time to consider the dilemma of these two flawed and likable beings. The job of Acting allows a certain dispensation to play out one's fantasies, and in a situation filled with real emotion, the opportunity is delectable.
Act Two puts She and He into another awful new play, and this time it stirs up recollections of what caused them to break up. By the end, we may be charmed by the resolution, marriage is preserved, and everyone ends up in their rightful place; but it strains credibility, even within its farcical logic, and gets just a wee bit moralizing. The thing is, I liked She and He. I wanted the play they were in to provide them with a second chance to get their love right this time. I didn't see either of them as the whore or the asshole the play labels them (even in jest) at the finish.
Even so, Act Two has some amazing physical movement and fight choreography (again. played for laughs), some screamingly funny 1970's "urban" costumes, and fine performances.
I think, with a few revisions, it might even play in New Haven. (You had to have been there.)