Noël Coward meets Noises Off meets Conor McPherson when a couple of onetime lovers find themselves lip-locked once again in not one but two not-so-brilliant regional theater productions in Sarah Ruhl’s scrumdiddlyumptious backstage comedy Stage Kiss, now getting its West Coast Premiere at the Geffen Playhouse.
Despite not all that much discernible talent, She (Glenne Headly) manages to ace her audition for director Adrian Schwalbach (Tim Bagley) only to discover that her leading man will be none other than He (Barry Del Sherman), the costar she had once loved but vowed never to lay lips on again.
Unfortunately for the now-partnered-to-others former couple, a bunch of scripted stage kisses soon have He and She rekindling old romantic flames amidst rehearsals equaling those in the aforementioned Noises Off in the overall ineptitude of everyone involved.
And this is only the beginning, since Act Two has the now reunited lovers locking lips yet again, this time in director Schwalbach’s self-penned potboiler, He as a Northern Irish IRA soldier in love with She as a Brooklyn hooker who’s already got her hands full meeting her pimp’s demands.
Can this showmance survive? Will He and She continue to destroy the lives of those who love them including his Iowan girlfriend, her distraught husband, and the estranged couple’s angry teenage daughter?
I don’t know if anything makes me laugh harder than good actors pretending to be bad, which makes Stage Kiss a particularly tasty treat from the moment Headly’s She arrives to audition for director Bagley, whose lack of talent (the character’s, not the actor’s) is exceeded only by his certainty that the play he’s directing (about a terminally ill wife healed by her adulterous lover’s kisses) is the next best thing to Coward, Shaw, or Wilde.
As for the titular smooch, playwright Ruhl milks a series of lip-to-lips (real, fake, passionate, mimed, awkward, opposite-sex, same-sex) for all their worth, and with director Bart DeLorenzo eliciting one inspired performance after another (and plenty of physical comedy adding even more laughs to Ruhl’s already hilarious script), I can’t recall having had more fun at the Geffen.
Just as Headly gave Steve Martin and Michael Caine a run for their comedic money in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the stage-and-screen star once again excels at playing ditzy-with-smarts opposite the dashingly handsome and equally talented Sherman as her on-again, off-again onstage, offstage love.
Supporting performances are uniformly scene-stealing, beginning with Bagley’s deliciously incompetent director-playwright, who’d like nothing better than to demonstrate stage-kissing with self-proclaimedly “not straight” understudy Kevin (a fabulously fey Matthew Scott Montgomery, who returns in Act Two as an improbably “butch” pimp).
Like the always memorable Montgomery, Melody Butiu and Emily James play multiple roles to perfection, as “cast members” in Act One (the duo proving that reacting is every bit as important as acting), then in Act Two as characters affected by He and She’s illicit love affair, Butiu as a quintessentially small-town Midwesterner and James as a quintessentially angry teen.
Stephen Caffrey completes the cast, grounding Stage Kiss with another terrific character turn, this time as the husband of an actress with an unfortunate penchant for bedding her male costars.
Scenic design whiz Keith Mitchell takes us from a rehearsal room to a stage set gradually taking shape to that set’s impressive final incarnation to the cluttered apartment He and She call their love nest.
David Kay Mickelsen’s eclectic array of costumes, John Ballinger’s impressive sound design and original music, and Lap Chi Chu’s tongue-in-cheek imagining of the work of a less talented lighting designer are all absolutely terrific, and fight director Peter Katona great fun with some well-meaning but deliberately inept “fight choreography.”
Jennifer Brienen is Production Stage Manager. Cate Cundiff is Assistant Stage Manager. L.A.-based casting is by Phyllis Schuringa, CSA. Ivy Beech, Laura Emanuel, Brendan Ford, and Peter James Smith are understudies.
I’ve enjoyed Sarah Ruhl’s whimsical, lyrical, frequently mind-bending plays before, but never as much as the audience-friendly Stage Kiss. Great actors have rarely if ever been better at being “bad” than those now lighting up the Geffen.
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.
April 20, 2016
Photos: Michael Lamont