In the program for the Guthrie's Stage Kiss, playwright Sarah Ruhl says that she doesn't like to use the words "whimsy" or "quirky" when referring to her plays.
How about "clumsy," "pretentious," and "a waste of talent?"
Ruhl's résumé features a number of terrific plays, but this isn't one of them. Director Casey Stangl and a talented cast make the best of it, providing solid comedy. But they're unable to create any real romantic heft.
Stage Kiss follows She (yep, that's the character's name), an actress working her way back into the business after a long layoff. The opportunity comes in The Last Kiss, a terrible, forgotten 1930s melodrama about a dying woman brought back to health by the arrival of an old lover. The play is getting a New York revival and She is thrilled to get the lead.
But She's horrified to discover that her stage partner is He (again...), an ex-flame. After their relationship ended badly, the two haven't spoken for years.
When they're forced to share numerous intimate moments, they rekindle old feelings. As the production goes down in flames, they find themselves a couple once again.
That doesn't sit well with their respective partners: husband Harrison (along with their daughter, Angela) and girlfriend Laurie. No one can understand why the pair has tossed aside years of their lives to head back into a relationship that ended badly the first time.
Still, She and He persevere, until money troubles push them into another terrible play, Blurry. The show is all about bad contemporary theater: a hard-hitting tale of an IRA terrorist and his love, a near-sighted hooker.
The satire is all good and fine, but the rest of the play doesn't feel any more real than the onstage contrivances. That's likely Ruhl's point. After all, there's a moment where She, He, and the Director (excuse me, "A Director") break into a couple of verses of "Some Enchanted Evening" before returning to the action.
It doesn't make it any easier to care about these people, which makes it extra difficult to be swept up in their romance.
There's no denying the talent on stage, as the cast fights bravely to build something out of the thin material. Stacia Rice is a gifted comic and dramatic actor, working mightily to make She more than a bundle of clichés. Todd Gearhart does the same with He.
The supporting players are just as strong, with Charles Hubbell putting on his best pretentious twit as the beret-wearing Director, and Cat Brindisi breathing life into the one-dimensional, passive-aggressive girlfriend, Laurie.
There are moments where Stage Kiss works. Near the end, She and He rehearse a fight scene from Blurry. As they go through the moves at half speed, their real frustrations — about their relationship, acting, and life in general — come to the fore. The moment builds until the fighting becomes very real.
Yet it's not enough. Ruhl's play is too much a mix of satire and romantic entanglement. Neither side goes deep enough, making Stage Kiss an empty exercise.