Lyric's "Stage Kiss": Lips Together, Teeth Apart

Michael Hisamoto, Gillian Mackay-Smith, Alexander Platt, Celeste Oliva,
 Craig Mathers & Theresa Nguyen in "Stage Kiss"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Picture this for tautological theater: in a play-within-a-play, two long-lost lovers who are actors are cast as two long-lost lovers. The possibilities seem endless. But leave it to playwright Sarah Ruhl (In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, and many other works) and Director Courtney O'Connor (Buyer and Cellar) to come up with Lyric Stage Company's latest production, Stage Kiss. Soon after the two exes re-meet, one character, Kevin (the hilarious Michael Hisamoto), declares “what a strange job to kiss strangers in front of people and make it look like you know each other. Or kiss someone you know in front of people and make it look like a stranger”. This is Ruhl at her wackiest, proposing a challenge for her cast to convey her farce in all its unmitigated glory.

The character known only as She (the magnificent Celeste Oliva) later asks (with a split infinitive and all) “When I kissed you just now did it feel like an actor or a person kissing a person because I've kissed you so many times over the last few weeks I'm starting to not know the difference”. And the character known only as Husband (the very funny Craig Mathers) has his say: “You have kissed each other, let’s see, nine times a night, eight shows a week, four-week run, that’s two hundred and eighty-eight times. That’s not love. That’s oxytocin.” (Which the program notes correctly describe as “the hormone that triggers pleasurable and erotic feelings”). So the play is fundamentally meta-physically convoluted.

The other actor, referred to only as He (the fine Alexander Platt) also feels the confusion, though the director of the play-within-a-play, Adrian Schwalbach (the always dependable Will McGarrahan) is a bit out of it. The rest of the cast include comic turns by Theresa Nguyen (as several characters, Angela, Millie and Maid), and Gillian Mackay-Smith (as Millicent and Laurie). The creative team's efforts are on a par with Lyric's best, from the Scenic Design by Matt Whiton to the Costume Design by Amanda Mujica, Lighting Design by Chris Hudacs and Sound Design & Original Music by Arshan Gailus.

This is not Ruhl's best work, as it eventually falls into the trap of presenting “bad actors” in a “bad play” (think Meryl Streep, a terrific singer, purposefully off-key in the film Florence Foster Jenkins) for too long a time, threatening (but not succeeding) to become a bad experience for the audience. This production boasts a cast capable of carrying this central conceit, so the laughs survive the overly lengthy exposition. It's a case of performers being better than the material they're given. Still, even second-tier Ruhl is cause for rejoicing.

It's becoming a truism, or even a cliché, to allude to how deeply we all need a good laugh these days. So rest assured this is not fake theater, it's a rare opportunity to experience a cast (and audience) so obviously enjoying themselves.

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