Two actors—one-time lovers with a tempestuous history—fall easily into old patterns when they’re cast opposite one another in “Stage Kiss,” a smart backstage comedy from two-time Pulitzer finalist Sarah Ruhl. The play is now having its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons.
“Stage Kiss” begins at an audition, where we're introduced to a nameless 40-something actress returning to her career after a professional dry spell. Played with spacey self-absorption by Jessica Hecht, the actress hasn’t bothered to learn her lines for this tryout, but still lands the lead, as a dying woman whose last wish is to see a former lover.
Life imitates art when this actress learns that her leading man in the melodrama will be her own lover of two decades prior, a roguish thespian with Peter Pan-issues. He’s played by Dominic Fumusa, of TV’s “Nurse Jackie.” As with Hecht’s actress, the playwright denies Fumusa’s character a proper name.
Though she is now married, and he lives with a schoolteacher, the old flame is rekindled, thanks in part to the show’s director (Patrick Kerr, of TV’s “Frasier” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), who pushes “she” and “he” to lock lips early in rehearsals: “I like to get it out of the way—demystify it, you know.” The play both spoofs and honors actors, with the idea that their actions in real life could be easily affected by their roles on stage.
You’ll spend a lot of time during “Stage Kiss” thinking about the range of meanings a kiss can have: Will the actress kiss her scene partner less passionately on stage when she knows her real-life husband is in the audience? And what does a kiss taste like? Cherries? Or chestnuts? A kiss is rarely “just” a kiss, Ruhl (“In the Next Room…”) reminds us throughout the two-hour piece, directed by Rebecca Taichman.
“Stage Kiss” veers from the superficial to the substantive with the arrival of Harry (Daniel Jenkins), the banker who is married to Hecht’s actress, and who has tolerated his wife’s propensity for love affairs with her co-stars. Harry sees love in more shades of gray than the couple’s daughter, Angela (Emma Galvin), who believes marriage should be like a tattoo: “You leave it on.” The second act isn't as smooth as the first, but you'll stay with it.
At its best, “Stage Kiss” is about an adjustment the lucky make, from pursuing relationships that provide a quick burst of passion to ones that offer longevity and sustainability. By play’s end, we’re left wondering if the occasional drift is not only permissible, but perhaps necessary.
The performances in “Stage Kiss” are fun—particularly the comic turn from Tony-nominee Hecht (“A View From the Bridge”), the deliberate actress who was so memorable as Walter White’s former lover on TV’s “Breaking Bad,” and as the lesbian life partner of Ross’ ex-wife on “Friends.” It’s also easy to be taken with Michael Cyril Creighton, who is hysterical as a fey understudy in the first act and (stay with us) a pimp in the second.
There’s not a single plausible event that transpires here, but there are ample laughs, and a message that resonates. “Stage Kiss” starts out as an absurd comedy, but turns out to be a play with some teeth.
“Stage Kiss,” through April 6 at Playwrights Horizons MainStage Theater, 416 W. 42nd St. Tickets: $75-$95. Call 212-279-4200 or visit TicketCentral.com.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn