Ruhl wraps this curiosity around a fairly unenthralling premise. Two actors, known in the programme only as She and He, are cast as lovers in a “bad 1930s chesnut”. An awkward situation as is, matters are complicated by the passionate romance She and He were embroiled in fifteen years earlier. The trite melodrama of the play-within-the-play skirts and entwines with the real life dramas of She (Danielle Mason), He (Peter Daube), and the cast of supporting characters. When condensed to a mere two-sentence plot summary, it fails to sound fresh, yet it’s a credit to both Ruhl and the team behind this Circa/NZ premiere production, that my conversations during the interval resounded around how we really, really didn’t quite know where this play would go next.
On the whole, the plot is stretching it, as we see the characters behave rashly both on and off-stage in a matter I found difficult to swallow. I had a few moments of raised eyebrows, but have to admit it’s that ability to dip into surrealism that makes Ruhl’s scripts so delightful. Topped with an above-average dose of sharp wit, the result is a frothy evening of entertainment, albeit one that sticks firmly with frivolity. In-jokes abound for the actors,writers and directors among us, particularly from a memorable performance by Bruce Phillips, in the role of the director of the shambolic play. In a world of characters that erred towards the overblown, Phillips gave the enthusiastic and flamboyant director an air of earnestness kept the character oddly grounded, paired with an ability to mimic directorial habits without making them seem cliched.
The entire cast do a superb job of mastering Ruhl’s script, keeping a cracking pace and fizzing energy which makes the two hour evening feel a lot shorter. She (Mason) managed to carve out a character with whom I quickly became onside, a task I didn’t expect to be achieved, at least for the first act. This sentiment rings true for the play as a whole. The first half gets somewhat bogged down in the atrocious over-acting (a device used for the play-within-the-play, not a quality of the performers in general). Whilst this is undeniably amusing, at times the laughs felt cheaper than they needed to be, and some of the heart of the play gets lost beneath the comedy. The second act, which spends far more time with the characters off-stage and their feet on the ground, provides stronger moments where we can truly connect to the characters and get a sense of the wider themes. In particular, the moments between She and her teenage daughter, Angela (Harriet Prebble), plus Husband (Stephen Papps), bring a sincerity the play sometimes lacks.
The Stage Kiss Facebook event page goes for the advertising angle of “Make a date night for one of the hottest new plays to hit the stage.” This strikes me as being a fairly appropriate angle to take, all the talk of kissing aside. It’s light, it’s enjoyable, and you will likely leave and have a brief discussion on the play that will quickly segue into talking about something else. It’s a smart play which never tries to outsmart you, but will always entertain you. If you are after an evening of light laughs and slick, well-crafted theatre, Stage Kiss is a show not to be missed.
Stage Kiss is showing at Circa Theatre until July 30th.
Book tickets online at https://nz.patronbase.com/_Circa/Productions