By Pat Launer
There are at least three layers of life imitating art in the West coast premiere of “Stage Kiss” at New Village Arts. There’s a play-within-a-play, in which a married woman re-connects with her long-lost and much-lamented lover. The actors cast in the roles were lovers 15 years ago, and that first stage kiss re-ignites the adolescent passion. During rehearsal, the leading man breaks his ankle. Ironically, the real-life leading lady at New Village had a running accident that put her in a leg cast up until the first preview.
It’s all about the real vs. the simulated in this play, a significant departure from the far more edgy and substantial work of Sarah Ruhl (“Eurydice,” “In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play” and “The Clean House,” all of which have been seen in San Diego, the latter last year at New Village). Ruhl is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient. This isn’t the work she’ll be nominated for next.
Although there is some semi-sober discussion of love and marriage (“marriage should be permanent, like a tattoo”), this is pretty much a romcom cum backstage farce, an over-the-top field-day for actors and pure catnip for theater-lovers.
Loopy warmups and rehearsal antics abound, under the aegis of a hands-off, woo-woo director (funny Daren Scott) who wants his performers to be strictly intuitive (“How do you feel doing that?”). The understudy is a gay nerd (Brian Butler), who stands in for the smooch scenes with a gaping fish-mouth that repulses the actress and makes her feel like he’s going to eat her, not kiss her.
The passionate play and play-within-a-play kisses between adorable Amanda Morrow and handsome John DeCarlo are completely credible. The on and offstage husbands of Morrow’s character (called She), both played by Dallas McLaughlin, are saints of patience, tolerance and forgiveness. Perhaps not the most realistic of the exaggerated creations here, but a nice fantasy. Maybe the spouses of actors are forced to develop a thick skin about the almost inevitable showmances that result from onstage amorous relationships. “She always falls in love with whoever she’s in a play with,” says She’s husband. “That’s not love; it’s oxytocin.” Christina Flynn completes the ensemble with a pair of amusing characters, one of which is the put-upon girlfriend of He, who briefly takes up with She’s husband. (Are you following all this?)
Director Chelsea Kaufman (managing director at NVA) and her highly capable cast have captured the madcap comedy of the piece with crackerjack timing that makes it all look blissfully effortless. The few serious moments are handled with due gravity and sensitivity.
Sarah de la Isla, who plays three roles with aplomb (including a spot-on, angry, accusatory teen), also created the original music for the monstrous, musty 1930s play-within-a-play. The second play the two reunited actors perform together in (the director’s first playwriting effort, about an Irish Republican Army rebel and a prostitute who wants to be an ophthalmologist), is staged in a second-rate Detroit theater. It’s even worse than the first piece, which took place in New Haven.
Brian Redfern’s set, wherein the apartment of He is replicated exactly for the Detroit production (Art and Life again) neatly splits in two for the final dénouement. The costumes (Mary Larson), lighting (Chris Renda) and sound design (Matt Lescault-Wood) perfectly complement the wacky but warm-hearted proceedings.
There isn’t much takeaway here, but it’s a fun ride. Audiences always wonder about how actors do it: stage kiss, that is. You need wonder no more.
- “Stage Kiss” runs through March 1 at New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 B State Street, Carlsbad
- Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
- Tickets ($23-$42) are available at 760-433-3245; www.newvillagearts.org
- Running time: 2 hrs. 15 min.
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.
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