Review: ‘Stage Kiss’ at SF Playhouse (****1/2)

by Victor Cordell
Rating: ****1/2
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

She (Carrie Paff) and He (Gabriel Marin), are former lovers, cast in a play about former lovers. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli.
She (Carrie Paff) and He (Gabriel Marin), are former lovers, cast in a play about former lovers. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Sarah rules!

“Stage Kiss” is a Sarah Ruhl love letter to theater, and director Susi Damilano pushes all the right buttons to make it a frothy, enjoyable evening.

An unnamed actress (called She in the program) is played with great conviction by the talented Carrie Paff. Having been largely inactive in acting after marriage and raising a daughter, She auditions for a role in a renewal of a 1930’s play that failed to leave much of a mark. To her surprise, she gets the role. But to her greater surprise, she finds at the first rehearsal that her unnamed male co-star (called He – what else?) is a former lover. He is played with similar effectiveness by Gabriel Marin.

The lovers’ parting nearly 20 years before was not pretty, but each carries some yearning for the other. Their clumsy reunion is exacerbated when the director, played by an energetic and goofy Mark Anderson Philips, insists that they rehearse stage kissing at the outset to alleviate the tension of anticipating the action later on. Many actors say that kissing another in a performance is so false and unmotivated that it is one of the most difficult parts of acting. But as He and She embrace, one quickly wonders if the ensuing heat is acted or real.

While She is prosperous and happily married to an investment banker, He is a Peter Pan living on the fringes, currently shacked up with a school teacher he barely knows. There wouldn’t be much of a play if his and her passions were not reignited, and before long, the exhibition of late onset raging hormones begins. Of course, an affair between two people working together is hard to hide, and characters affected by it begin to learn and intercede. As She’s husband, Michael Gene Sullivan gives a polished performance. He approaches the cleft in his marriage with the confidence and analytical exactitude of a successful executive looking to solve a problem. Taylor Imam Jones plays the 16 year old daughter, whose juvenile reactions , like “You bitch – I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.”) are delivered with verve.

Ruhl’s play is a pure send up of theater people and their conventions – a satire without serious intent. The two plays-within-the-play are particularly ridiculous. In the first, a dying wife entreats her husband to invite her former lover to her deathbed, and the lover’s return heals the wife. The second is a love story between a Brooklyn prostitute and an IRA gunman. The script is very funny, and remarkably, many of the lines in the play would seem sterile on the page. Credit Ruhl for envisioning how those words could be made funny, Damilano for creating the context and the guidance, and the actors for delivering the goods. Paff and Phillips are particularly funny when he is giving stage directions and she is trying to find the right mode of expression and practicing the lines. Marin is droll in his characterization of arrested development, with his head in the clouds and his sex drive in drive.

Technical elements in “Stage Kiss” are strong, with well designed lighting and sound. Set design, by Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott, deserves particular recognition. In addition to the common changing of props on the same set to create a different venue, three different sets are used, taking advantage of SF Playhouse’s revolving stage.

“Stage Kiss” plays at SF Playhouse through January 9, 2016 at 450 Post Street, San Francisco. For further information, click here.

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 “Stage Kiss” by Sarah Ruhl, produced by SF Playhouse. Director: Susi Damilano. Set Designers: Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott. Lighting Designer: Robert Hand. Sound Designer: Theodore J.H. Hulsker. Costume Designer: Brooke Jennings.

Cast:

She: Carrie Paff. He: Gabriel Marin. Director: Mark Anderson Phillips. Husband: Michael Gene Sullivan. Kevin/Butler/Doctor/Pimp: Allen Darby. Laurie/Millicent: Milli DeBenedet. Millie/Maid/Angela: Taylor Iman Jones.

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