A naturalistic play about four self-absorbed twentysomethings in New York, “Kiss Me on the Mouth” shouldn’t feel fresh. It has two dating relationships played out in parallel scenes, musings on wealth and its attendant miseries, and jokes about sex and church — its synopsis describes maybe two dozen other plays. But writer Melanie Angelina Maras reminds us that just because something has been done badly and often doesn’t mean it can’t still be done well. Under the direction of fellow playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, the contained, smart script exhibits plenty of wit, craft and, most of all, heart.
“You should be with a mogul. Or a dictator,” encourages Christina (Aubyn Philabaum). She’s trying to buck up her friend Amy (Megan Hart), who’s had too much of men of any description and is ready to leave the dating scene for a nunnery. Christina, to whom life as a nun seems like the next worst thing to suicide, convinces Amy (without much effort) to join her for one last night of drinking and dancing with strangers. As a result both women end up finding men who totally wrong-foot them.
Maras allows the play’s treatment of its romantic relationships to be a little lopsided, which is a good thing. Overall, we spend more time with Christina and Gabriel (Ken Matthews), a pathologically shy painter who rescues Christina from the Eurotrash guy hitting on her by pretending to be her boyfriend. Christina sends the unwanted himbo packing to a nearby club (“He’ll never get in there”) and tries to get to know the reticent artist a little better. The chemistry between Philabaum and Matthews helps sell the scenes in which the two begin to open up to each other, and when the relationship breaks down, Maras keeps the confrontation appropriately harsh without seeming to blame either character.
For her part, Amy falls for the very guy Christina shooed away (turns out he got into the club after all) — an Italian-Brazilian smooth talker named Andre (Troy Lococo) and the biggest cheeseball in the storied history of hitting on nice Catholic girls. “You can be my Mother Teresa” will not be a pickup line most auds have heard before.
Christina’s quest to get under Gabriel’s skin is significantly more interesting than Andre and Amy’s relationship (which stays chaste for a while, much to Andre’s horror), and that’s fine. But you sort of wish there was something to Andre — some little spark of humanity under his carefully groomed exterior. He’s mostly fodder for jokes, many of which are very funny (his voicemail: “I am Andre! I am away. I call you back. Enjoy!”), but when he turns out to be a predatory jerk after sleeping with Amy, it’s hard not to wonder how she could possibly be surprised.
Guirgis draws honest, vulnerable performances out of everyone here (with the possible exception of Lococo, who is playing a thick-skinned liar), but the best is Philabaum’s. She never makes fun of her jobless poor-little-rich-girl character, instead giving us several moments (including a great drunk scene) when we wouldn’t trade places with her for all the money in the world.
Structurally, there are a couple of hiccups here and there — in particular, the climactic confrontation between Amy and Christina makes explicit a lot of things the audience will have figured out already. But what’s really striking is how thoroughly Maras digs into all three relationships — Christina and Gabriel, Amy and Andre, Christina and Amy.
The last seems in danger of falling by the wayside about halfway through, but Maras is just biding her time. As alluring as Gabriel is when he’s painting in his studio (Melissa Mizell has lit designer Laurie Helpern’s clever, minimalist set to make it look abstract and cool in a Mondrian-ish way), the play’s center is the love between the two women. Carefully and without any showy flourishes, Maras dramatizes how that love will last when Andre and Gabriel are gone and forgotten.