There’s not one but two plays-within-a-play in Sarah Ruhl’s “Stage Kiss,” a highly meta-theatrical, fundamentally enjoyable, slightly slight, not-so-romantic comedy pondering the complexity of onstage osculation.
In the first act, Ruhl’s generically named leads He and She, forty-something actors who were each other’s first loves two decades earlier, get cast opposite each other in a deservedly obscure (and fictional) 1930s melodrama about — surprise, surprise — the re-kindled affair of a middle-aged couple who were once each other’s passionate first loves.
As He (Mark L. Montgomery) and She (Jenny Bacon) kiss and kiss during rehearsals, the whole notion of smooching on stage gets a contextual contemplation, as the volatility of their youthful romance becomes re-acted in public, and thus re-activated in private. The funniest moments actually occur when She must temporarily work with a gay understudy (a perfectly dry Jeffrey Carlson), who makes it rather difficult by opening his mouth before kissing, “as if he’s about to eat me.”
In the second act, He and She must deal with his too-nice girlfriend (Erica Elam) and her insightful husband (Scott Jaeck) and teenage daughter (Sarah Tolan-Mee), with the husband noting that She has a long-time habit of falling in love (or at least believing she has done so) with those she pretends to fall in love with onstage.
Still wrapped up in their reminiscences of youthful passion and the romance of their characters — “Would you please stop talking like you’re in a 1930s drama,” She’s husband justifiably requests at one point — the two actors re-team with the comically untalented Director (Ross Lehman) for an even more ridiculous (and tragic!) tale about an Irish meanie and a Brooklyn prostitute with bad eyesight. (It’s called: “I Loved You Before I Killed You, or Blurry.”)
It’s all very silly, and often wickedly clever. The relationship between acting and living has been one of Ruhl’s favorite subjects, and she melds it here with a consideration of the chasm between the intense tormented love of the young (or the overly romantic) versus the quieter but sustainable love of a respectful marriage. Ruhl falls firmly — even, in the ideal figure of the Husband, a bit pedantically — on the side of the latter.
As in so many plays about the theater itself, “Stage Kiss” has a solipsistic and emotionally distant quality — it ponders, after all, the conflation of “real” and “fake” feelings. And director Jessica Thebus’s overall fine production, full of stellar acting and delightful design work, starts to sputter towards the end, failing to find the sharp reversals when She begins to unravel onstage or when Ruhl throws in a shrewd twist at the end, which should be a major revelation but comes off with a mild thud.
Ruhl is fully in the mode of aestheticism here, ruled by the Wildean conception that “life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” She even, unusually for her, sacrifices the development of more thought-provoking layers for a neatness of dramaturgical construction. (Her first play-within-a-play actually parallels her storyline too much, or possibly the other way around.)
But Ruhl’s unique, breezily elegant dialogue is fully present, as is her pleasingly loopy logic. And given that she fills “Stage Kiss” with a host of accessible laugh-lines throughout and doesn’t purposefully provoke perplexity with her narrative, it wouldn’t be surprising if this turns out to be a rare Ruhl play more popular with general audiences than with critics and connoisseurs.