Poor, poor Kevin.
The hapless everyman functions plenty in Sarah Ruhl’s “Stage Kiss,” now running at City Lights Theater Company. He’s a dude who’s always there when you need him, ready to dive into an audition as a loyal scene partner and even holds an advanced degree in stage combat. Hell, if your play needs a pimp, he’s got a purple suit and platform shoes ready for action.
Yes, that Kevin is always up to something. But when it comes to the one thing that will save the big show as an understudy for the romantic male lead, he struggles mightily.
That’s because he is not the desired kissing partner in the company’s doomed play within the play of 1930s flop “Last Kiss,” which has nothing to do with the occasional set of crumbs that take root in his thick beard. It has everything to do with that face he makes before lips become locked, or as “She” puts it, “He looks like he wants to eat me.”
The character of She does not have the same issues with the swashbuckling hunka hunka burning love “He,” a guy who explodes onto the stage as if he just walked off the set, rockin’ the classic actor uniform of jeans and a Starbucks cup. They dated previously, did some theatre work together, and clearly enjoy getting their lip lock on.
While Ruhl’s play doesn’t always lend itself to maximum engagement, laboring too often in various moments in the two hours traffic of the stage, the City Lights performers, stewarded at a solid pace from director Jeffrey Bracco, do not lack in their drive and ambition.
What is striking about the way the hilarity is played is in its daring. She (a widely varied April Green) and He (passionate Asher Krohn) do a lot of great work to lift each other up. Their moments of over-the-top, madcap mugging are balanced nicely with more subtle moments of listening and reacting. And while not all of the ensemble’s humor lands cleanly, sometimes with a thud, each member of the seven-person cast takes turns shining in the intentionally patchy and effective stage light of Mary Baronitis’ design.
It all starts up with the “Director” (irrepressible stage veteran Tom Gough). He is irritable, coming off as a Brit who picked the wrong line of work, an Alfred Hitchcock with better hair and a lot less talent. Gough also gives his character a horribly effective British accent that dips and darts everywhere while giving crap direction, which is lined with constant humor.
His urgency to mount the play with a few interesting folks include the constantly irritated young up and comer Millie (a sharp Alexandra Velazquez), the minimally talented role of the Maid (engaging April Culver), the regal Husband (slick and smooth Damian Vega) and of course, Kevin (bumbling jester Matthew Regan). The talented cast all take on different roles in act two, given a new set of moments to steal.
While there are plenty of touches that make the production very effective, it’s a tricky piece that doesn’t always lend itself to smoothness. Bracco’s direction includes some great music and work from sound designer George Psarras, a playlist that features all the great crooners such as Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. Ron Gasparinetti, who handles every kind of set imaginable in that City Lights space, uses a design that’s simple in its approach yet grand in its functionality.
Ultimately, the play is about blurred lines. As a former high school theatre teacher, I often witnessed the moments of fleeting passion that existed in a darkened backstage for every single show among kids whose hormones were ready for takeoff. But once closing night came and went, turning Monday into just another school day, those magic moments couldn’t sustain any longer.
This is where He and She live, two actors who are the epitome of a disaster when the stage lights are turned off. The decisions they make together are epically bad, the magic of a stage connection disintegrating into a glorious heap once the curtain closes, collateral damage everywhere. Misguided passion turns into old Chinese food, bad sandwiches and a terrible couch bed.
Green and Krohn’s handling of these problematic characters and daring situations that the play requires is quite strong.
Now if that lousy director can only get Kevin some more practice with his kissing game…
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
City Lights Theater Company presents “Stage Kiss”
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Jeffrey Bracco
The Word: A play that has plenty of laughs but also feels long. Solid performances from a talented cast led by strong, committed turns from Green and Krohn.
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
Through Feb. 16th
City Lights Theater
529 S. Second Street, San Jose, CA
Running time: Two hours with one intermission
Tickets range from $23 – $47
For tickets, call (408) 295-4200, or visit www.cltc.org