BWW Review: Mwah! Love and Kisses to STAGE KISS
Written by Sarah Ruhl, Directed by Courtney O'Connor; Scenic Design, Matt Whiton; Costume Design, Amanda Mujica; Lighting Design, Chris Hudacs; Sound Design and Original Music, Arshan Gailus; Vocal Coach, Will McGarrahan; Fight Choreographer, Brandon G. Green; Production Stage Manager, Nerys Powell; Assistant Stage Manager, Bridget Anderson
Thank you, Lyric Stage Company. Thank you, Sarah Ruhl. Most of all, thank you Courtney O'Connor, Celeste Oliva, et al for two hours of pure, unadulterated fun in your production of Stage Kiss, a rom-com that turns the world on with its smiles, laughs, and an abundance of kisses. An ensemble cast of seven slides easily in and out of the world of the play and the play-within-a-play, inviting the audience to share in the make believe. Even without benefit of rehearsal, we played our part well, always laughing and applauding at the right moments without prodding.
O'Connor directs the New England premiere of Ruhl's 2011 play about a pair of estranged lovers thrown back together after many years in an onstage melodramatic romance that spills over to their offstage lives. As they struggle to sort out which emotions are acting and which are genuine, their co-workers and significant others are sucked into the maelstrom they create, but O'Connor is adept at juggling all of the craziness so that it is at once hilarious and actually makes sense. She is fortunate to have Oliva (She) and Alexander Platt (He) as the duo who are alternately making love or war. The chemistry between the two leads rockets off the periodic table and they make sparks fly together.
Individually, Platt makes it look easy playing an actor with a healthy dose of ego, peppered with insecurity, and shows vulnerability when "He" admits his longing for "She." Oliva's comedy chops are fully on display in this role, distinguishing who "She" is from the opening audition scene, and nailing every bit of the physical comedy with perfect timing. She has shown great range on numerous Boston stages, but this performance has to rank among her best. Making his Lyric Stage debut, Craig Mathers does a nice job doubling as the over-the-top husband in the onstage scenes and as Harrison, the real-life husband of Oliva's actress, who is a mensch and the grown-up in the room.
Will McGarrahan captures the droll director Adrian Schwalbach with his usual aplomb and flecks of flair. Playing his protégé Kevin, Michael Hisamoto is a riot when he sits in as a reader with "She" for her audition and later as her scene partner as the understudy. Their kissing scenes are worth the price of admission, but Hisamoto also rocks one of designer Amanda Mujica's best costumes when he plays a pimp. Theresa Nguyen stands out as "She's" acerbic teenage daughter, and Gillian Mackay-Smith makes a nice transition from a supporting actress to "He's" collateral damage, his school teacher girlfriend from the midwest.
Scenic designer Matt Whiton is tasked with creating three sets: a bare theater space for audition and rehearsals, a stage set for the melodrama, and a contemporary, messy East Village apartment. Chris Hudacs lights each area appropriately, including bringing the lights down and back up for the staging of the play-within-the-play. Sound designer Arshan Gailus provides required street noise and gunshots and adds some lovely original incidental music. Oliva and Platt sing a couple of ditties a cappella as part of their onstage personas, and McGarrahan serves as vocal coach. Brandon G. Green is fight choreographer for the production and, presumably, no injuries occur despite some rambunctious activity.
Playwright Ruhl has received numerous awards, has been a Tony Award nominee, and has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her writing pedigree is well-established, and a few of her works have been produced in Boston theaters in the past, including Dead Man's Cell Phone (2009) and Dear Elizabeth (2014) at the Lyric Stage Company. She has a gift for writing comedy, but also creating fully-rounded characters who are capable of driving the story and making us care about them. In Stage Kiss, she takes it a step further and makes us fall a little bit in love.