'Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy

Kiss not on his list: Rod (Jay Jones, right) refuses to pucker up to Gary (Desmond Bling, left) in Penumbra's 'Stage Directions'
Ann Marsden

The issue of a single stage kiss seems harmless enough, including that of the same-sex variety, but in this show, which depicts a series of rehearsals for an imaginary production, the proposed locking of lips presents a major monkey wrench when one actor refuses to honor the script. What follows is quite entertaining and consistently funny, albeit somewhat lacking in the weight it aspires to heft.

Jay Jones portrays Rod, a rather macho straight actor who claimed at audition he could pull off the kiss but subsequently derails matters. Desmond Bing is Gary, a gay actor who can't fathom how things went awry--and who turns angrily divisive when James Craven's Jay, the play's director, caves in to Rod's squeamishness and proposes a very phony-looking bit of staging as a substitute.

Jason Allyn-Schwerin, scenic designer for Stage Directions, is charged with the daunting task of making a stage look like itself, with chairs and odd bits of scenery littering the visual field. The effect is pleasantly voyeuristic; when Rod and Gary slip in and out of character during rehearsals, it becomes very easy to forget that one is watching a play rather than real life. The actors move up and down the aisles, rendering the audience invisible and making the room feel oddly empty.

Director Lou Bellamy's cast provides an abundance of snappy energy and a command of the material, though there are moments when some of the banter between the characters seems not to entirely come to life. The show is anchored by Craven, who plays Jay as a good guy trying to keep things together. His recurring "Okay!" remains staunchly sing-songy in the face of increasing hostility and irrationality, and the verbal tic gets more and more laughs as the evening goes on.

Harry Waters Jr. plays Terry, the writer of the imaginary script, with a gentle soulfulness that turns poignant when Gary turns bomb-thrower and divides the players into straight/gay camps. L. Trey Wilson's script gives Bing a lot of incendiary verbiage to work with, and his performance gives us a callow youth with a convincing array of baggage beneath his I'm-too-sexy persona.

The fact that all the players are African American men is an implicit commentary on black America's particular brand of homophobia--especially through Rod's fear of being perceived as gay, or even gay-friendly, to his audience. The work itself doesn't delve extraordinarily deeply into the matter, leaving much meaning implicit. Rod is none too sharp--playwright Wilson has him looking up "homophobia" in the dictionary after getting the job--though Jones's work portraying him is naturally funny, if a little too prone to pulling admittedly amusing facial expressions. His transparent scheming to avoid kissing Gary is both amusing and pathetic, and Jones manages to depict a homophobe who hasn't put much thought into his aversion.

Which beings us to the central problem with the work, one that's outside the control of this able cast: Is this play plausible? I've seen men kiss on stage a bunch of times (including African American men), and anyone involved with the theater understands that acting means doing things you may or may not enjoy in real life. It's not Jones's fault, or Craven's, but from the audience one felt an overriding impulse to just tell Jones to get on with the kiss, damn it, and do his job.

An ending is tacked on in which the scene is finally played out right, and Waters and Shawn Hamilton give us the long-delayed smooch. It feels anticlimactic. Wilson's script ends on a note of liberation that seems dated by about 10 years. As a viewer, this particular production has such appeal that these sort of thematic issues are easy to set aside until later. But then the doubt settles in: Is the theater really so unwelcoming to gay men that Rod wouldn't have been laughed out of rehearsals for his lack of professionalism? One hopes not, but perhaps the point lies elsewhere. During a show last week, a group of viewers walked out in mid-performance, presumably over the subject matter. Perhaps it's not just fictional actors who need to get their heads on straight.

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