Also see John's review of Peter Pan
A second-tier actress (played by Jenny Bacon) is cast in an ill-advised Broadway-bound revival of an unsuccessful 1930s Coward-esque play called The Last Kiss. She learns at the first table reading she'll be playing opposite the actor (Mark Montgomery) with whom she had an affair some 18 years earlier, before marrying someone else and, ironically, their characters are also former lovers reunited after many years. In performing the passionate stage kisses required of their characters, the physical attraction between the two actors is re-ignited and, just as in their play, an illicit affair begins (she is married, with a teenage daughter; he has a live-in girlfriend).
The play starts off promisingly enough with the actress's audition for a bumbling second- or third-tier director (played in a spot-on, hilarious turn by Ross Lehman). She's a charming klutz, ill-prepared for the audition (and Bacon is a likable actress with terrific comic timing); he's a director who, beneath a veneer of open-mindedness and creative freedom, is shown to have no ideas and is incapable of actually giving direction other than calling for frequent breaks. The director has a cute young boy-toy to understudy the leading man and incompetently play minor roles. The boy (in a very funny performance by Jeffrey Carlson) is clumsy and has food between his teeth when rehearsing the kisses with the actress; the leading man has bad breath. Once they get into tech rehearsals one of their flats repeatedly threatens to fall on the cast. So much for the glamorous life.
Ruhl starts to get in trouble when she spends most of the first act's stage time in parodying the oversized emotions and improbable plot lines of 1920s and '30s stage dramas. A little goes a long way, and there's a lot of it here. It takes away from the opportunity to develop any of the actor characters. We don't learn much about the man (he and the actress are simply called "He" and "She" in the program), other than that he's a financially troubled, Peter Pan-syndrome-suffering egotist who never married. Montgomery pulls off the flaws in the character amusingly without showing why anyone would be much attracted to him.
After the play flops and is closed in New Haven (does anything try out in New Haven anymore, and are we really supposed to believe artists with such limited talent would be in a Broadway bound production?), He and She, still in their Last Kiss costumes, retreat to His (actually his girlfriend's) walk-up apartment in New York. Confrontations ensue: The annoying sweet girlfriend Laurie (in a funny, wired and high-pitch reading by Erica Elam) returns and Her long-suffering, loyal husband (Scott Jaeck) and hypercritical teenage daughter (an edgy, energetic Sarah Tolan-Mee) hunt her down. Life imitates the failed art of the play within the play as the actors and their families emulate the over-the-top emotions of The Last Kiss. The actress's husband pairs off with the actor's girlfriend, leaving the actor and actress behind in the walkup and it seems clear at this point that Ruhl and director Jessica Thebus don't expect us to take the actor characters seriously. The actor and actress stay in the apartment, in bed in their costumes, for the next week, only cleaning up and leaving the room when they have the chance to audition for a gritty urban drama to be staged by their Last Kiss director in Detroit.
The need to leave their Last Kiss characters behind and assume new ones predictably leads to the end of the affair, and for the first time Ruhl lets us develop some empathy for the two. There are some very insightful lines here and a marvelously sympathetic performance by Jaeck as the Her husband. It gives us an idea of one way Ruhl might taken her concept, for there's a fascinating theme in the premise that we allactors and audiences alikecan be tempted to take undue refuge in the make-believe world of drama, where the "right" outcomes usually happen, and conflicts are resolved in some sort of logical fashion. By making her actor characters parodies within her parody of a dated form of drama (that is now self-parody), it's hard to take much away from Stage Kiss beyond Ruhl's undeniable ability to write very funny, satirical dialogue, delivered expertly by Thebus and her cast (and performed against Todd Rosenthal's delightfully realistic sets recreating a bare stage, stage set, and grungy Manhattan walkup). If Ruhl would focus on her theme on the seductive nature of drama's fantasy world, within the context of her gentle satire of the theater business, she could have a funny and warmly touching comedy. As it is right now, though, Stage Kiss is a mish-mash that frequently amuses, but doesn't take us anywhere.
Stage Kiss will be performed at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago through June 5, 2011. For tickets, visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org, call 312-443-3800 or visit the Box Office.