The line between onstage and backstage has been blurred in plays before by playwrights running the gamut from William Shakespeare to Luigi Pirandello (Six Characters in Search of an Author) to Alan Bennett (The Habit of Art). So it’s not too surprising that Sarah Ruhl’s latest play Stage Kiss, now playing at Playwrights Horizons, isn’t so much a groundbreaker as it is a twinkling bauble in a long line of metatheatrical tradition.
Ruhl, who has established herself as one of theatre’s most expert purveyors of whimsy (for better or worse depending on the project), has written a quick-witted, fast-paced farce that ought to appeal to a broad audience without alienating the core fan base she’s amassed as a result of well-reviewed productions like The Clean House and In the Next Room (or the vibrator play). Stage Kiss is among her best plays because it takes itself less seriously, mostly shedding Ruhl’s often distracting diversions into hippie-dippy saccharine in favor of a more straightforward comic narrative.
Jessica Hecht’s unswervingly committed performance as our protagonist — named She — produces comic sparks throughout, but especially in the play’s hilarious opening scene, in which she auditions for a revival of a creaky made-up 1932 Broadway flop that the director hopes will be a hit in a new production in New Haven. Though she’s late to the audition, and more than slightly awkward (she kisses the audition reader full-on and fights her way through a singing audition self-apologetically), her loopy enthusiasm wins the day and our leading lady soon wins her own leading role in the play within the play. In the first act, She (married) and her costar, He (an ex, also in a new relationship), navigate the world of onstage and offstage love as they rekindle their old flame. Dominic Fumusa is well-matched opposite Hecht as He. Similarly winning are Patrick Kerr, who’s brilliantly deadpan as the Director, and Michael Cyril Creighton who, as the Director’s assistant puts across several hilarious gags.
By the play’s second act, our two protagonists have discarded their partners and committed to one another, taking on grittier roles as a whore and an IRA soldier in a production written and directed by their previous director. Performing the play in Detroit, the froth and folly of their 1930s era onstage romance dissolves into something altogether more fractured both onstage and off. An amusing twist ending brings She’s priorities back into focus as the play spins dizzily toward its predictable — but nevertheless satisfying — conclusion.
Much of the play consists of scenes from the plays-within-the-play — ultimately both a strength and weakness here. The “let’s make fun of old-timey plays” thing has been done time and time again, almost as often as the “let’s make fun of flat-out terrible plays” thing (another running gag here). Many of these moments are well-chosen by Ruhl for comic effect, but others begin to wear. More judicious use of these meta moments would have allowed Ruhl to explore her character’s interior lives more fully, but perhaps that simply isn’t her aim.
Though Ruhl fails to portray much depth beyond establishing Stage Kiss‘s meta environment, the cast assembled here and Rebecca Taichman’s well-paced direction keeps an audience careening from laugh to laugh, blissfully unaware of the play’s ultimate lack of substance. Thanks to Hecht’s standout performance and a winning premise, thankfully there isn’t time to be all that disappointed.