'Stage Kiss': Theater Review

Stage Kiss Production Still - Publicity - H 2016
Michael Lamont

Stage Kiss Production Still - Publicity - H 2016

Histrionic mid-life shenanigans and infectious laughs.

Glenne Headly leads the cast of Sarah Ruhl's giddy backstage romantic comedy in its Los Angeles premiere at the Geffen Playhouse.

The laughter in the audience on opening night for Sarah Ruhl’s effervescent backstage comedy, Stage Kiss, was the knowing laughter of those intimate with the tempests and rituals of auditions, rehearsals and curtain calls. Glenne Headly stars as the otherwise unnamed She, who falls in love again with a former flame when they are unexpectedly cast opposite one another in a new production. Kissing is a big part of rehearsal, and practice makes perfect, maybe a little too perfect for her husband and daughter. Ruhl’s frothy comedy is broad enough to elicit belly laughs and clever enough to compel by pitting the "romance" of theater against the real-life romance of routine.

When the curtain rises, the audience catches a glimpse of the hurlyburly of backstage life. Two guys sit quietly at a table, waiting. One is the Director (Tim Bagley), the other his assistant, Kevin (Matthew Scott Montgomery). Moments tick by and nothing happens until finally She arrives, late to her first audition in 20 years. Although past her prime, she was probably not much of an actor even back in her heyday. To make matters worse, she seems a bit lost. Nevertheless, she’s good enough for the Director, who responds with hilarious growing uncertainty to every query from his actors as rehearsals get underway. 

In the play-within-a-play, a dying woman is granted a final wish by her wealthy husband — one last visit with the love of her life, a Swede who "makes large sculptures with his hands." It comes as some surprise when She discovers her leading man is He (Barry Del Sherman), with whom she co-starred and fell in love two decades earlier. Subtext becomes text as their snide jabs punctuate inappropriately sensual kisses (albeit in character), and things between She and He advance toward the inevitable.

The first act of Stage Kiss delights as the play-within-a-play progresses toward opening night, and Keith Mitchell’s subtle scenic design morphs from tape markings and stand-ins to a full-blown production. Director Bart DeLorenzo expertly handles his cast, smoothly navigating tonal transitions into and out of the ridiculous play-within-a-play while skewering dramatic conventions.

The second act opens when the show has closed (to terrible reviews), and it's here that Stage Kiss begins to falter. She, her jealous husband (Stephen Caffrey) and irate daughter (Emily James), and He, along with his confused girlfriend (Melody Butiu), enter into a contrived argument about spirituality, the purpose of which seems only to rearrange the onstage couplings. The laughter of the first half diminishes significantly as a new play is mounted starring She and He, this time in Detroit where they will be portraying an aging hooker and a member of the Irish Republican Army.

The play’s ending offers a surprise twist that Ruhl earns as a writer, but still it seems pat and less than satisfying. But in addition to artfully silly dialogue and insightful ideas on romance and reality, Stage Kiss offers a multi-hued performance by Headly. That spacey air She has about her when she first auditions is the air of someone searching, rediscovering herself through her art but losing herself in the process, and that's only a portion of this deceptively demanding role (played by Jessica Hecht in the 2014 New York premiere). Headly also gamely and gracefully takes on the comically dying dame of the first play-within-a-play as well as the middle-aged hooker of the second.

Amply assisting her is Del Sherman as her male co-star and past paramour. Although his character traverses only an abbreviated arc, trading growth for incremental revelation, the actor subtly embodies a man driven by boyish impulses he is either unaware of or chooses to ignore.

Enough cannot be said of the supporting cast, beginning with Bagley as the Director and Montgomery as his assistant. Together they constitute a strong comedic combine as they helplessly watch both productions slip from their grasp. Rounding out the ensemble, Caffrey, James and Butiu are each effective in lesser roles that seem underwritten. But even if Stage Kiss is flawed, it’s way too much fun to care.

Venue: The Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles
Cast: Tim Bagley, Melody Butiu, Stephen Caffrey, Barry Del Sherman, Glenne Headly, Emily James, Matthew Scott Montgomery
Director: Bart DeLorenzo
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl
Set designer: Keith Mitchell

Costume designer: David Key Mickelsen
Lighting designer: Lap Chi Chu
Music and sound designer: John Ballinger
Fight director: Peter Katona
Presented by The Geffen Playhouse, by special arrangement with Samuel French