STAGE KISS is an entertaining backstage comedy that's a bit of KISS ME KATE, a bit of Noel Coward's PRIVATE LIVES with some backstage farce a la NOISES OFF thrown in. It's a bit too long for its premise and only sags when it tries to be philosophical.
Like the classic Cole Porter/Sam and Bella Spewak musical KISS ME KATE, STAGE KISS brings together an estranged, once passionate couple as the stars of a new play. This one isn't THE TAMING OF A SHREW but a really awful 1930s play being produced by a regional theatre in New Haven. The play within a play seems more like a bad version of 1930s Bette Davis movies than a stage play, but it allows for a lot of funny schtick. Playwright Sarah Ruhl's focus is on the meaning of a stage kiss. Who is kissing, the characters or the actors? How is our response to simulated sex on stage different from our response to film sex or to pornography? We see a lot of kissing scenes between people who have strong feelings for each other and people who feel nothing for their scene partner. What we mostly see is the rekindling of the romance between the two stars, She (I hate plays with nameless characters), played by Jessica Hecht and He played by Dominic Fumosa. She is now married to a successful stockbroker and has a teenage daughter (her affair with He [Him?] was sixteen years ago), and He is in a relationship with a sappy midwestern kindergarten teacher. Of course, He and She are back together from their first rehearsal kiss. The play they are in is directed by an unbelievably incompetent director (Patrick Kerr), who is in a relationship with the understudy (an hilarious Michael Cyril Creighton), as bad at acting as his lover is at directing. There is a lot of truly funny stuff, but the second act is nowhere as good as the first. Ruhl makes the mistake of getting serious at the end and her serious speeches are filled with platitudes.
Jessica Hecht is a favorite of New York critics. I find her an acquired taste that I haven't quite acquired. She's a very mannered actress with an eccentric way of delivering lines. She's more like actresses of the last century who were immediately identifiable by their way of speaking (Hepburn, Shirley Booth, Margaret Sullavan, Barbara Bel Geddes, Eileen Heckart). We don't have many actresses now that you can identify by their first line. Hecht almost sings her lines. She's a rail thin woman who can do almost anything with her body. She's a bag of acting tics that she takes from role to role. One either likes them or one doesn't. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Dominic Fumosa can play comedy well. He's stunningly handsome and totally charming. Is he eccentric enough to be believable as Jessica Hecht's romantic partner? Probably not, but he's a real theatre leading man. The rest of the cast is fine. Rebecca Taichman paces the play's farce-like scenes effectively.
I could quibble and say that the plays within the play are unbelievable bad. No one would produce them. No director this incompetent would get work in the professional theatre (I hope). Michael Frayn's NOISES OFF does backstage farce so perfectly that no other play matches up. STAGE KISS is fun, another hark back to the old days when going to the theatre for some laughs was considered a perfectly good way to spend two hours. At the prices Playwrights Horizons members pay, it still is.
STAGE KISS by Sarah Ruhl. Playwrights Horizons. March 22, 2014.