Actors are required to kiss all the time in their line of work, but can a smooch really be faked? Passion simulated either becomes real or risks looking contrived and yucky.
Sarah Ruhl, the charmingly inventive author of "The Clean House," "Eurydice" and "In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play," has fashioned a work around the subject in "Stage Kiss," a backstage comedy that marries the meta-theatrical antics of "Kiss Me, Kate" with the seemingly offhand but in fact micro-observant humor that is one of her trademarks.
The production, which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse under the direction of Bart DeLorenzo, makes it easy for us to become infatuated with the play. The cartoon style in which not-so-good contemporary actors get cast in a really bad 1930s boulevard melodrama (parodied by Ruhl with lip-smacking gusto) provides a steady stream of giggles in the first act, which is set largely in a rehearsal room in New Haven, Conn.
But while easy to like, "Stage Kiss" proves hard to love, as the play's elaborate and somewhat protracted cleverness outstrips any emotional investment we have in the material. DeLorenzo's cast is better at wringing laughs out of the bumbling thespian roles than in making us care about the characters' outcomes.
This is a problem as the play begins to divide and subdivide into other plays. Ruhl has not only written ludicrous scenes from "The Last Kiss," a fictitious Broadway bomb that a journeyman theater director (a deliciously defeated Tim Bagley) has foolishly set out to revive. But she has invented another laughably bad play in the second act, this one written by the director for his leads in "The Last Kiss," who have fallen back in love after being reunited in a production that let's just say won't be headed to New York any time soon.
The hall-of-mirrors effect that Ruhl creates is impressive. (She possesses one of the boldest theatrical imaginations at work today.) "Stage Kiss" is distinguished by its tenderly stoked madcap conviction.
Love is the playwright's subject, but the originality of her insights stems from the way artifice and reality are played off each other. Which is more real — the lost romantic passion curated by memory and enshrined by artists, or the married kind that's rehearsed on a daily basis without the benefit of any fanfare?
For this to become truly meaningful, however, Ruhl would have to endow her characters with more substance than she does here. The central figures of "Stage Kiss" are designated as He and She, and that pretty much sums up our relationship to them. They are amusingly neurotic types who begin to overstay their welcome as their skit-like scenes multiply rather than deepen.
Glenne Headly plays the actress with a dithering diffidence and faint air of melancholy. The character, married to a stolid financier and the mother of a bright, insolent 16-year-old daughter, has barely acted in the last 10 years. Her chief credit is an anti-depressant commercial, in which she was, not surprisingly, quite convincing.
Barry Del Sherman plays the actor as an aging Peter Pan, a classic narcissist so caught up in himself he has hardly noticed the state of his career or dilapidated personal life. He lives in a grimy studio apartment in New York and is dating a schoolteacher from the Midwest whom he dismissively describes as "optimistic."
While acting in "The Last Kiss," which plays like one of those classic Hollywood sendups on the "The Carol Burnett Show," these estranged lovers find their old feelings reviving. Their tempestuous past is exhumed, without the slightest loss of amorous intensity. In Ruhl's world, art doesn't merely mirror life — it reconstructs it with a kind of mathematical mockery.
The casting here, however, poses a problem. Headly and Del Sherman don't have much natural chemistry. They seem, in fact, to be as distant as two strangers introduced on the first day of rehearsal. This deprives the production of an erotic interest. Without this bond, the play comes off as innocuously playful.
"Stage Kiss" is a whipped dessert that's cheerfully served on a set by Keith Mitchell that shows off the Geffen's proscenium to fetching advantage. But it's not easy to make a meal out of a meringue.
Ruhl, however, is an unusually resourceful comic writer. The backstage shenanigans of theater folks, who find refuge in fantasy, no matter how tattered and clichéd, had me chuckling at a steady clip.
The director's description of the "The Last Kiss," as "very moving," despite being "tonally, very you know, slippery," is delivered with perfect deadpan by Bagley. (His vow — "with the proper cast, a new score, and some judicious cuts it will be really very well received in New Haven" — doesn't instill much confidence in his ragtag company.)
Matthew Scott Montgomery is especially winning as Kevin, a gay cast member who has a special relationship with the director. When he's called upon to stand in for the romantic lead, he practically falls apart: "I just have this awful fantasy that I'll kiss a woman on stage and everyone will be like, 'You know, yeah right, whatever.' Sorry I just needed to get that out there."
Doubling and tripling is required of the supporting players, and each of the cast members gets a moment to shine. Emily James is terrific as the actress' sputteringly angry daughter. Stephen Caffrey, as the actress' deserted husband, and Melody Butiu as the actor's jilted girlfriend, soften their loony caricatures as the situation requires.
One of the play's more memorable exchanges directly engages the all-important subject of theatrical osculation. Headly's character asks Del Sherman's why audiences enjoy watching other people lock lips in the theater.
"They don't enjoy it," he explains. "They tolerate it … because it signifies resolution" and because it's about "an idea of beauty completing itself." But he adds that, unlike film, "you don't like to see people do more than kiss on stage — it's repulsive."
In the movies, which are more like porn, he argues, it's the sex itself that titillates, whereas in theater it's the idea of sex. "And that's why the theater is superior to film," he concludes, "because it's less like masturbation."
These thoughts don't sound all that credible coming from this hack actor, but they make an eloquent case for a playwright madly in love with her art form.
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 15
Tickets: $43-$82 (subject to change)
Info: (310) 208-5454, www.geffenplayhouse.com