By Patrick Hurley
In a bittersweet homage to theatre, Sarah Ruhl’s new play Stage Kiss, playing now at the Geffen Playhouse, seems to have compiled all the worst attributes that theatre has to offer including vain and shallow actors, clueless directors, outdated and irrelevant scripts, and yet, somehow the result is a gentle reminder of what theater can do.Clearly not up to par with Ruhl’s previous works Eurydice and In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, this is a fluffier, highly accessible romantic comedy that somewhat falls victim to the formulaic narrative that propels so many other similar love stories.
Years after a torrid affair, a pair of aging lovers (Glenne Headly and Barry Del Sherman) are cast opposite each other in the revival of a terrible 1930s melodrama. The play is an over-the-top reminder of the hyperbolic nature of what theatre used to look like, and sadly still does for many people. This duo comes with more than just past-love baggage. They are both married. She to a ridiculously understanding husband (Stephen Caffrey), and they have a very opinionated teenage daughter (Emily James). He has a very sweet docile wife (Melody Butiu). In one of the more interesting theatrical elements of the show, some of the side characters play the other characters in the play-within-the-play in similar roles.
The play-within-the-play is perhaps Ruhl at her sharpest. It’s a nod to what should be a dead form of theatre. Every word seems strained, every gesture from the actors feels forced. And the director (Tim Bagley) seems disinterested with the entire affair, as he gives notes like “Eh, let’s bracket this and come back to it,” and “we’ll fix that in previews.” It raises the question of what theatre is now, and what relevance to the world around it does it actually have. By drawing parallels between the characters within the play, and the actors playing them in Ruhl’s play, the answer is strangely evocative. The power of capturing human behavior in the moment that it occurs can be, even in a terrible play, a powerful antecedent to escaping reality.
Art versus life. A theatrical device that has sparked some of the greatest dramatic artists of all time. Shakespeare coined the phrase “All the world’s a stage,” in what is perhaps the most notable attempt at seeking to connect an audience to what theater and life have in common. The first act plays out as a heightened comedy, going back and forth from the melodramatic play-within-a-play, to the more naturalistic behind the scenes moments. The second half kind of does the same thing, but focuses much more on the naturalism.
This production is very well put together, from the wonderful set designed by Keith Mitchell to the costumes, designed by David Kay Mickelsen, that sometimes must exist in two genres at once. The performances are quite good across the board. Director Bart DeLorenzo does a great job of tapping into several theatrical styles. The play-within-a-play aspects are much more entertaining than the more naturalistic scenes, mostly because there are so many easy shots taken at theater.
The only downside to this show is that it makes theater seem irrelevant and negative. While it pays homage to it, it never fully embraces the beauty of it, but instead uses it as a means to an end. And anyone who has never fallen in love with theatre it might seem impossible from this show that anyone ever would.
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Bart DeLorenzo
Previews: Tuesday, April 5—Tuesday, April 12
Opening Night: Wednesday, April 13
Closing Night: Sunday, May 15
Monday No Performance
Tuesday—Friday 8:00 pm
Saturday 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm
Sunday 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm
Tickets currently priced from $46 to $82 are available in-person at the Geffen Playhouse box office, via phone at 310.208.5454 or online at www.geffenplayhouse.com. Fees may apply.
Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse
10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024