Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Stage Kiss
City Lights Theater Company
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's reviews of The Pianist of Willesden Lane and Taking Steps


Matthew Regan and April Green
Photo by Taylor Sanders
Tonsil hockey, pecking, sucking face, tongue wrestling, snogging, or just good ol' making out—whatever the nickname, the meeting of two sets of human lips is the central and most-repeated action of Sarah Ruhl's Stage Kiss. Sometimes barely touching a cheek, sometimes a thwarted attempt embarrassingly missing target, but most often involving long encounters with sound effects and lots of tongue, lips play a big role as actors playing actors rehearse and perform plays within a play. In City Lights Theater Company's current production of Stage Kiss, the boundaries between what is real and what is acted fade away as called-for kisses take on lives of their own and as the real life portrayed is no less ridiculous and often just as bizarre as the silly, poorly written plays its actors find themselves performing in.

After years away from acting (save one stint as a maid and one anti-depressant commercial), an unnamed She shows up for an audition and immediately starts apologizing—"Sorry, sorry" inserted after every other scripted line—while also rather manically directing her own tryout. As a forty-something actress whose voice and mannerisms during her nervous audition initially border on that of a late-teen, She quickly switches to a more shocked, fully adult demeanor when she realizes that her co-starring He in the play-to-be is a long-ago ex and that their script will call for a number of kisses that must be rehearsed innumerable times in the days and weeks to come. The initial shock of seeing each other once they arrive at the first rehearsal quickly leads to side, bitter-filled snipes muttered between the rehearsal's lines. However, the required practice of repeated kissing scenes begins to spark embers that have long lain smoldering, kept alive for two decades in their individual, X-rated dreams about each other and their long-ago, lurid love affair.

That She is married and has a teenage daughter, that He is about to move in with a kindergarten teacher girlfriend, and that the play they are rehearsing is possibly the worst script either has ever read matter little as the two become so caught up in their own renewed attraction that even they seem to be confused as to what is script and what is reality. So befuddled do they become that their initial quickies become extended life scenes once their play closes. Overly dramatic moves, stage voices, and even her evening-gown costume are now the everyday way they live in He's dumpy, East Village apartment.

With the flamboyant flairs of two-bit actors trying much too hard to be perfect in their own play within the play of their lives, April Green and Asher Krohn are a She and He who display a palpable magnetism drawing their leg-locked bodies together. At the same time, their She and He are clearly always just on the edge of a possible flop in their own staged life, especially as little things start popping up that probably led to the relationship's initial demise twenty years prior. Asher Krohn is particularly convincing as a two-bit actor who has never figured out that he is not perpetually onstage and has never learned not to over-act—on stage or in real life.

Tom Gough plays the Director of the two plays with the play who most often oversees what is occurring in rehearsals by only offering a few "Hmmms" or an occasional "Whatever feels right... trust your instincts." Such general passivity and a rather removed, pompous attitude are only occasionally punctuated by his sudden decision to intervene, clumsily getting in the midst of the actors to demonstrate how something is to be done, that being especially true when he recruits She and He to star in his own world premiere of I Loved You Before I Killed You, or Blurry. Tom Gough's Director unfortunately loses some of his potential comedic effect his employing an undetermined, rather off-putting accent which probably is supposed to emphasize his overall detachment but is frankly more puzzling and distracting than effective.

One of several parts Matthew Regan undertakes is Kevin, a minor player within the play's two plays and the understudy of He in the first play within our play. When he steps in to aid She's initial audition, his jerky, awkward attempts to land a required kiss are made all the more funny by a mouth that looks like a near-dying guppy gasping for air. As a hunchbacked doctor in white coat who looks as if he stepped off the screen of a Mel Brooks film and as an actor playing a pimp clad in head-to-toe purple who is left holding a gun with no target in sight when the play suddenly falls apart, Matthew Regan provides some of the evening's best laugh moments.

Alexandra Velazquez is a twenty-three-year-old supporting actress who plays She's daughter Millie and who bemoans during rehearsal always being chosen for the teenage part. In act two, with Sarah Ruhl's tongue clearly in her cheek, she plays the "real" teenage daughter of She, Angela, and does so with headstrong impetuosity, a mouth full of four-letter words, and a propensity to hog the spotlight whenever she can, spouting off her latest intense, teenage opinions about her mother, marriage and tattoos.

April Culver is in one act She's high-society, ditzy friend Millicent and in the second, the straight-off-the-Iowa-farm girlfriend of He who deals with discovering He and She co-mingled in bed by ranting about God and souls (herself also religiously using some four-letter words to describe her passionate beliefs). Both women, along with Matthew Regan, prove that the small parts are often the most delicious and satisfying.

Rounding out this cast of stock characters, Damian Vega is twice the cuckolded Husband, played with silent-screen, jerky over-acting in the first act's play within the play and then becoming the loyal, patricianly distant, and not-to-be-deterred hubby in the "real-life" part of act two.

A highlight of the evening actually occurs between scenes through the well-picked, 1970s songs that are part of the music and sound design of George Psarras. As the play is about to begin, Dean Martin sings "You're Nobody Until Somebody Loves You," gearing us up for the love matches and foul-ups about to come. Ella sings "Too Darn Hot" after She and the Understudy fumble through a "3-count" kiss, and "Anything Goes" fills the air as She and He move from stage kissing to real-life kissing (and more)—with these being only a few of such well-placed, entertaining musical selections throughout the evening.

While the City Lights production is throughout mildly entertaining producing chuckles here and there, director Jeffrey Bracco has not reaped the full extent of possible humor and laugh-out-loud fun that Sarah Ruhl's brilliant script potentially affords. From the opening minutes of the first auditions, the pace tends to feel a couple of notches too slow and just a bit off-kilter. Moments that should be really hilarious (like He falling across the floor to break his ankle in a dress rehearsal or the Pimp missing his target on opening night when aiming his gun) barely caused a few laughs the evening I attended and seemed too belabored. The script affords much more potential humor to be found in the character of Kevin, who at one point admits while nervously rehearsing kisses with She, "I'm not straight"; but that confession is largely ignored with little further attention by the director. Energy in the production overall wanes time and again, making it difficult to sustain the overall sense of hilarity that Sarah Ruhl's play and this overall fine cast deserve.

But in the end, the strength of the script still wins out. Sarah Ruhl has called upon a familiar-enough ploy famously used by Shakespeare up through modern stage history and has taken it just a bit deeper and darker while retaining and enhancing the humor of a play within a play. In the end, we begin to wonder: Is actual life any better (or worse) than the worst script imaginable? Are we all acting on our own stages as genuine people with unique personalities, or are we really just stock characters in some grand theatrical joke?

Stage Kiss runs through February 16, 2020, at City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose CA. For tickets and information, please visit cltc.org or call 408-295-4200 Monday - Friday, 1-5 p.m.


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