BWW Reviews: Ruhl's STAGE KISS is Sweet, Sexy and Screwball

From high school drama class all the way up to the big time, you never know what might happen when two actors are assigned to kiss each other on stage. It can be interesting enough when strangers or casual acquaintances professionally press lips against one another, but what about when the designated pair shares a stormy romantic past?

BWW Reviews:  Ruhl's STAGE KISS is Sweet, Sexy and Screwball
Todd Almond and Jessica Hecht (Photo: Joan Marcus)

That's the premise for Sarah Ruhl's delightfully off-beat romantic comedy, Stage Kiss, now enjoying a rollicking premiere at Playwrights Horizons. The playwright and her excellent cast provide an evening of sexy hilarity and tender thoughtfulness via Rebecca Taichman's sparklingly direction.

Jessica Hecht stars as an accomplished, but emotionally frazzled actor (most of the characters are unnamed) trying to pick up the pieces of her career after taking a 16-year maternity leave. She gets cast as the leading lady in a New Haven revival of a 1930s drawing room infidelity drama that flopped in its original Broadway run. The oddball complications of the plot even require her to sing an awkwardly inserted tune.

As fate would have it, the actor cast as her lover is her onetime fling, played by Dominic Fumusa as a hunky rogue with commitment issues. Though they're both involved with nice, normal people who aren't in the business - he's dating a kindergarten teacher (aggressively pleasant Clea Alsip) and she's married to a banker (patient and loyal Daniel Jenkins) - old habits die hard and once they've begun playing intimate scenes together their real lives begin mimicking the onstage drama, including an awkwardly inserted tune.

BWW Reviews:  Ruhl's STAGE KISS is Sweet, Sexy and Screwball
Jessica Hecht and Michael Cyril Creighton
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

By the second act they're once again starring together, this time for an edgy theatre company in Detroit playing a questionable inner city drama about a Brooklyn prostitute and an IRA gunman. But just when the farcical antics are about to climax, Ruhl kicks in some legitimate sentiment contrasting the heightened realism of romantic fantasy with more grounded relationship realities.

Hecht is wonderfully in command as a character who can dominate each moment she's on stage but makes bad choices too easily in real life. Fumusa is the sturdy straight man anchor when the comical backstage calamities multiply and the two of them heat up the stage convincingly.

Patrick Kerr is very funny as the indecisive director who allows the actors to explore as a cover for his own incompetence, as is Emma Galvin as Hecht and Jenkins' belligerent daughter who believes in the sanctity of marriage.

Michael Cyril Creighton is a scream as an inexperienced young actor who is completely inappropriate for his roles as the leading man's understudy and as a pimp.

Todd Almond, who composed the intentionally less-than-brilliant music, offers charming vocal moments as the onstage accompanist.

Neil Patel's excellent set design takes us from an empty theatre workspace to an elegant drawing room set to a cramped East Village apartment.

Theatre folk will especially enjoy the comic bits that play off traditional backstage antics, but Stage Kiss' mixture of sweet and silly should provide a fun time even for nice, normal people who aren't in the business.

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