The basic plot of Sarah Ruhl’s “Stage Kiss” (directed by Aaron Posner at the Round House Theatre) is ripe for a sex farce. An actress known only to us as She (Dawn Ursula) who has not performed in ages wins the female lead role in a revival of an absurd 1930s melodrama only to discover that the leading man is her ex-paramour, known as He(Gregory Wooddell). and that a certain amount of kissing must ensue between them. When humor dominates the play (as it mostly does, especially in the first half) the play is entertaining. Even when She’s sixteen year old daughter (Tyasia Velines) makes an appearance the humorous flow does not miss a beat as the self possessed teenager’s open contempt for He displays itself comically. But the playwright is aiming for more serious stuff, the nature of romantic love, of marital love, of sexual relationships that end but are never psychologically resolved. The problem, to my mind, with this as it works out in this play is twofold. First the serious parts tend to lack the momentum and vigor of the humorous parts and thus seem plodding and pedestrian. I think this is the fault not of the actors (who make the tonal transitions from comic to serious deftly) but rather of the play itself. Secondly is the ending. The romantic triangle is resolved and in a plausible way, but everyone behaves graciously and there are no hard feelings on the part of anyone. Given human nature generally, and given what we know of She and He specifically, this seems very unlikely. So the seriousness is not taken all the way.
Comparisons are odious, I know, but I saw “George is Dead” the day after seeing “Stage Kiss” and the difference is great indeed. Written by Elaine May of the famous comedy team of Nichols and May and directed by Ian Allen, it is very funny. Doreen ((a terrific Kerri Rambow) enters the apartment of Carla (Fiona Blackshaw) to announce that her husband, George, has just died in an out of town skiing accident. The two women seem to be about the same age. Carla is the daughter of Doreen’s childhood nanny. Carla is going through a marital crisis at the moment but with, at least at first, something approaching a Buddhist calm tries to help the rich, spoiled, helpless Doreen cope. Some of the humor comes from Doreen’s awareness of her flaws and her making no effort to correct them. The subplot of Carla’s marital discord with her husband Michael (John Tweel) gets quite dark making Carla an even more sympathetic character and also might help to explain the finals words of the play (which she utters). In addition, the ending threatens to (but does not ultimately) upend the comic tone. Miss May knows what she wants to do and does it well and efficiently. and the acting is worthy of this very well written a play.
“Stage Kiss” is being performed at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland (suburban Washington, DC) through December 27, 2015.
“George is Dead” is being performed at the District of Columbia Arts Center through December 19, 2015.