One of the better things about New Village Arts’ West Coast premiere of Stage Kiss, Sarah Ruhl’s backstage farce about two actors who reprise their real-life affair onstage, is that the first act doesn’t look like a backstage farce. Absent are the 78 window seats, 25 smoking jackets, 17 housemaids and 53 slamming doors that have helped brand the genre since the days of Nöel Coward, the art form’s arguable centerpiece; two chairs, a desk and little else frame the action as the absurd situations unfold. I sat there and waited for something a little less stylized to creep across the minimalist set, and I never got it. Oddly refreshing, in an oddly refreshing sort of way.
Then the second act begins, with its more substantive scene design and its accelerated story development, aptly framing the farcical lead female in what might be called a poor man’s drawing room — and then it hit me: Stage Kiss hasn’t incubated yet, and it won’t for a couple more rewrites. Far too much of the burden falls on that lead gal in the play’s progression, no matter the sets’ attempts to frame it in different ways; the secondary characters never shed her influence long enough to take on lives of their own.
Farce is unutterably difficult to stage, because the actors must rely on the situations, not on themselves, to drive the action. Here, since so much of the action revolves around one role, the situations never develop.
Try telling that to She (Amanda Morrow), married to cool guy The Husband (Dallas McLaughlin) after having done the nasty with He (John DeCarlo) long before she settled down and had a kid. Her inner diva bids her onstage with He in a play about two figures who, of course, did the nasty and lived to tell about it. According to The Husband, She falls in love with all her leading men, whose stage kisses become markers for her own hardscrabble outlook on life.
It’s an OK idea, as each kiss has a different and well-drawn characteristic (while He’s smooches derive from the couple’s past, stand-in actor Kevin looks like he’s going to eat She’s face). The problem is that there’s no attendant disparity among the other characters, because they’re too busy drawing their raison d’ệtre from She. I don’t think Morrow’s ever offstage for more than an interval or two, which tells you how overly dependent on her the story is. Ruhl hasn’t written a play so much as a character sketch, unwilling to spread the wealth that someone like She can share.
The performances are steady as far as they go, with director Adrian Schwalbach in the always-reliable hands of Daren Scott. Brian Butler’s Kevin sports a part in his hair that frames his nerdiness (he has to take that quality a step farther), and the show’s end proves McLaughlin’s Husband a solid straight-shooter (although Ruhl doesn’t draw enough of him one way or the other early on). Christina Flynn and Sarah de la Isla are fine in several roles of subtext.
I really did like Brian Redfern’s scene design, for the reasons I stated (I can’t remember ever seeing a farce so sparsely staged for an entire act, and that shows that Redfern thought things through to his liking). Chris Renda’s lights, Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound and Mary Larson’s costumes define things adequately; Renda’s lighting design is very, very good in illuminating tone and idea between the first and second acts.
But director Chelsea Kaufman simply doesn’t have a vehicle to work with, at least not insofar as equitable divisions of labor are concerned. To Morrow’s great credit, she bucks up by herself under all that weight, and she’s superbly cast to type. Now, it’s Ruhl’s turn to entrust that kind of freedom to the rest of the players.
This review is based on the matinee performance of Feb. 8. Stage Kiss runs through March 1 at New Village Arts, 2787 State St. in Carlsbad. $23-$42. 760-433-3245, newvillagearts.org.