The recent rash of gay bashings throughout the U.S. makes Rogue Machine’s Los Angeles premiere of Diana Son’s GLAAD Award-winning Stop Kiss timely indeed. Though its movie screenplay-like structure presents staging challenges not always overcome by directors Elina de Santos and Matthew Elkins, a provocative storyline and excellent performances make the production a largely engrossing experience.

New Yorker Callie (Deborah Puette) and Midwesterner Sara (Kristina Harrison) meet cute when Sara, described by Callie as “some friend of an old friend who’s new to New York” arrives at Callie’s apartment, cat in travel carrier in hand. (Callie’s apparently agreed to keep the kitty while Sara looks for a place to live.) Away from St. Louis for the first time, Sara is about to start a new job teaching third grade at PS 32 in the Bronx, quite a change from the Quaker school where she was teaching back in Missouri.

Playwright Son’s way with dialog is evident right from the start, as when Sara asks about Callie’s job.  “I ruin things for everyone else,” Callie replies.  “You’re Rudy Giuliani?” quips Sara. “No, I’m a 24-hour traffic reporter,” confesses Callie, wondering why anyone would even own a car in New York, considering the bad news she gives out every ten minutes from her helicopter above the city. Callie used to live with her boyfriend, she explains to Sara, but after their breakup, “I got the apartment and he got my sister.”

The locale then shifts to a police interrogation room (the first of about two dozen scene changes during Stop Kiss’s 90-minute running time) where an obviously distraught Callie is being interrogated by NYPD Detective Cole (Jeorge Watson).  Apparently, following a night of dancing at a West Village club, Callie and Sara were accosted by a complete stranger, who then assaulted Sara after she told him to “Fuck off.” When the detective asks her what she and her friend could possibly have been doing to provoke such an overreaction from their attacker, an ill-at-ease Callie can’t seem to come up with an answer.

Back at Callie’s apartment (and back once again in time), Callie and Sara are listening to a message from a certain George on Callie’s answering machine.  “George and I are friends who sleep together but date other people,” Callie explains to Sara, adding, “We’ll probably get married.”  Sara reveals that before coming to New York, she had broken up with Peter, her live-in boyfriend of seven years.

Back to the police station, where Detective Cole is interviewing Mrs. Winsley (Inger Tudor), who lives just upstairs from where the attack took place. “He called them ‘pussy-eating dykes,’” reveals Mrs. Winsley.

Back once again chez Callie, George (Christian Anderson) has just plopped down in front of the TV when Callie informs him that she has plans with Sara.  George is surprised to learn that Sara comes by so frequently that Callie automatically buzzes her in without asking who’s there.

Back to the police station, where Detective Cole is finding holes in Callie’s story. Why, he wonders, would their attacker have called them “pussy-eating dykes?” Finally, the truth comes out.  Callie discloses that she and Sara were sharing the play’s titular kiss when the man accosted them.

From here on, Son’s script alternates between Callie’s apartment, Sara’s hospital room, and the hospital waiting room as Detective Cole, George, Peter (Justin Okin), and the audience get gradually closer and closer to understanding how Callie and Sara’s relationship led to the attack-provoking kiss.

The very best reason to see Rogue Machine’s production of Stop Kiss is the all-around excellent work of its cast.  In a dynamic performance, LA Weekly Award winner Puette is never anything less than 100% real as Callie, a young woman gradually learning who she is and who she loves. Harrison matches her as the enigmatic Sara, making us wonder just who this woman is and what really is in her mind and in her heart. The charismatic Anderson does fine work too as a good guy justifiably confused by changes in his best friend/sex pal.  Top notch support is provided by Okin, Watson, and Tudor, the latter also appearing as Sara’s West Indian nurse.

Stop Kiss has been staged at over twenty-five theaters throughout the U.S. since its 1998 New York Public Theater premiere. I wonder how other directors and set designers have dealt with problematic staging aspects inherent in Son’s screenplay-like script, which has scene changes occurring on average every three or so minutes. As quickly as these scene changes are made in Rogue Machine’s production, they do end up slowing the play’s pace and momentum. They can also prove distracting, most notably when we see a hospital-gowned Harrison get into her hospital bed and assume the posture of her comatose character, then less than a minute later get out of bed and scurry out of view to enter healthy for her next scene—not once but several times. Though Son’s script structure doesn’t seem to take into account the problems which it presents a director, I can’t help wondering if this production’s co-directors, working with set designer Adam Flemming, could have figured out a better way to deal with the more problematic scene changes.

Otherwise, the cluttered New York apartment Flemming has designed makes for an absolutely believable home for definitely-not-a-neatnik Callie, and I liked the the Manhattan skyline sketched on the upstage wall behind it.  Leigh Allen’s lighting is, as always, effective, allowing us to imagine an outdoor nighttime stroll even when the set itself remains Callie’s digs.  Dennis Ballard’s costumes are a nice choice for the play’s characters, and Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design incorporates an eclectic blend of music to link scenes and set moods.  (Special kudos to Moscatiello for the sounds emanating from the apartment above Callie’s, where a neighbor “teaches horses how to Riverdance.”)

Ultimately, Stop Kiss is a production worth seeing.  In Callie and Sara, Son has created two very real women and a relationship sure to provoke much post-performance discussion. In Puette and Harrison, the directors have cast actresses who command our interest and touch our hearts. There is much to praise (and talk about) in Rogue Machine’s Stop Kiss.

Rogue Machine, Theatre Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
August 3, 2009
Photos: John Flynn

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