By Mike Hoban
‘Stage Kiss’ – Written by Sarah Ruhl; Directed by Courtney O’Connor; Scenic Design by Matt Whiton; Costume Design by Amanda Mujica; Lighting Design by Chris Hudacs; Sound Design and Original Music by Arshan Gailus. Presented by the Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon St., Boston through March 26.
Let’s cut right to the chase. There aren’t likely to be many theatrical productions this year that are as flat-out funny as “Stage Kiss”, now playing at the Lyric. Fueled by yet another terrific comic performance by Celeste Oliva (who also killed in the Lyric’s charming production of “Becky’s New Car” a few seasons back), “Stage Kiss” is a comic gem. And while there’s nothing overly clever or original about the play’s premise, playwright Sarah Ruhl blends slapstick, parody, and a brilliant talent for one liners into a riotous comedy that works great for those who have worked in the theater – and just as well for those who just enjoy watching it.
The setup is simple but relatable. She (the principal characters don’t have names) is a 40-something actress who has been away from acting for a spell – save for one gig in an antidepressant commercial – while she got married and raised a daughter. She bursts in late for an audition for a play, a bundle of insecurity (something no actor can fathom, I’m sure) and gets the part in spite of her manic (and hysterical) reading. The play she’s auditioning for was a bomb when it originally opened in the 30’s, but the director (a hilariously subdued Will McGarrahan) assures her that, “with the proper cast, a new score, and some judicious cuts, it will be really very well received in New Haven.” The play within the play, “The Last Kiss” is a laughably awful drawing room melodrama about a married woman who is given one month to live, and tells her husband that she wants to see her first love before she dies. He consents, and she and the old flame predictably rekindle their romance.
Art imitates life when the male lead in the role is – you guessed it – She’s old flame from 20 years before (Alexander Platt). He’s still acting, looks great, and hasn’t changed his ideals (read: grown up) during their time apart. He also has a girlfriend, a school teacher from Iowa. As the rehearsal process goes on – involving copious amounts of scenes where the two make out – they fall for each other again, decide it’s kismet, and start an affair. The significant others catch on, and aided by a ridiculous but inspired plot device involving the use of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening”, pair up. If the plot sounds like a bad daytime soap, it is, but the writing by Ruhl and the execution by the cast makes it brilliantly funny. And that’s just the first act.
In Act II, reality sets in, mirrored by the second play within a play that the old/new couple co-star in, “I Loved You Before I Killed You, or Blurry”, which reads like a bad 70’s cop show. He’s an IRA operative and she’s a vision-impaired hooker trying to get away from her pimp, and the play is just as good (and outrageously funny) as it sounds. Act II also allows the actors to move away from their comic sides to the dramatic, which they do seamlessly and with genuine heart as the play turns (somewhat) serious. Director Courtney O’Connor manages the breakneck pace beautifully, and gets strong performances from the entire cast, including Gillian Mackay-Smith, Craig Mathers and Theresa Nguyen in dual roles. And as the young understudy for He (as well as the pimp), Michael Hisamoto is a scream. His awkward attempts at kissing She during scene work are priceless, and when, in a panic, he announces to the cast that he’s “not straight,” he follows up by confessing this fear: “I just have this awful fantasy that I’ll kiss a woman onstage and everyone will be like, you know, yeah right, whatever.”
But it is Oliva who really drives this piece. While anyone who is familiar with her work over the years knows her capabilities as a dramatic actress (her solo performance in last year’s “Grounded” at the Nora was one of the best of 2016), Oliva cements her reputation as one of Boston’s best comic actresses with “Stage Kiss”. It would be nice to see her (and other 40-plus women) in more comic roles, but as her character laments in “Stage Kiss”, “there are really only two roles for women in theater, Juliet and Lady Macbeth.”
Gender fairness in the theater notwithstanding, you can see Oliva and the rest of the fine cast in this laugh out loud production through March 26th. Don’t miss it. For more info, go to: www.lyricstage.com