by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Rebecca Taichman
Starring Jessica Hecht
Playwrights Horizons

Reviewed by David Spencer

After a regional debut in 2011, Sarah Ruhl’s well-regarded comedy Stage Kiss is having its NYC premiere at Playwrights Horizons. Her main character is an actress, identified only as She (Jessica Hecht). Just returning to the business after a child-rearing hiatus, she auditions for a revival of an obscure play. She asks if she may actually kiss the reader (Michael Cyril Creighton) as indicated in her audition scene, and the director (Patrick Kerr) gives permission. Thus begins the thematic spine, as the playwright examines the difference between a stage kiss and a real kiss, a kiss inbetween and a kiss that can’t tell the difference. For She will, unbeknownst, be reunited with He (Dominic Fumusa)—the lover she left to marry another man (Daniel Jenkins) and raise a daughter (Emma Galvin)—who has been cast as her leading man. And sparks of old ignite, despite the play itself being a bad melodrama. (In a double casting scheme I won’t particularize here, Clea Alsip  is also featured.)

               Stage Kiss is unequivocally working for the audience—comedy is the most democratic form of entertainment and if they laugh, it’s funny—but I found myself less engaged than they. In part because the play seems overwritten in spots, making the same points repeatedly; and in part because I simply couldn’t buy into the delivery of either of the plays-within-the play (there’s another in act two). The “real-life” scenes already exist in a comic faux-realism (rather like the way Neil Simon’s material can be played) and the plays-within-the-play, upping the ante on contrast, go into full-metal Carol Burnett sketch genre parody. To me that flew in the face of credibility, and I kept wondering if Rebecca Taichman’s direction needed to be so broad to make her points and get her laughs. (I was also mindful of two backstage/onstage plays I like better, that handle the balance more credibly: Noises Off by Michael Frayn and A Life in the Theatre by David Mamet.)

               But these may be academic musings. I’ll note that, unprompted and unaware of my own feelings, my companion of the evening voiced pretty much the same impressions I had, so sensibility is a factor and mileage may vary. It may just be one of those evenings (like The Producers, which, paradoxically, I loved) where it’s best to give over and think of verisimilitude as a moving target; or not think too much at all. And whether or not to cooperate in such circumstances is ever and always in the eye—and the head—of the beholder.

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