Way back when, the late, great American writer Kurt Vonnegut published a short story — “Who Am I This Time?” — about a pair of community theater actors who, awkward in so-called real life, fall in love through the character they play on stage. In Vonnegut’s sure hands, the conceit is melancholy and sweet, a concession to the fraught slapstick of authentic emotional connection.
In Stage Kiss, now in production at University Theatre, playwright Sarah Ruhl (The Clean House) takes Vonnegut’s simple yet profound theme of actors acting themselves into (and out of) love and turns it into a sprawling comedy of manners, part postmodern farce and part sexed-up dramedy. After the grueling assault of UT’s previous production, the excellent (but nearly four-hour long) Scorched, Stage Kiss is just what it says: a light, refreshing buss on the cheek for fans of smart romantic comedy.
At the center of the play are the appropriately named She (Anna Klos) and He (TJ LaGrow), the lead actors in an amateur production of a forgotten (and rather bad) fictional 1930s melodrama about a heroine with one month to live. Turns out He and She have a bit of a burnt romantic history, and their surprise reunion on stage leads to a kind of doubling: As they rehearse the play, they work out their failed affair and present resentments, as well as their ambivalent attraction, through the characters they’ve assumed.
The passage of time, of course, has complicated things. He, a cynical snob, is currently in a lukewarm relationship with a bouncy schoolteacher from Iowa (the wonderful Clare McDonald), and She’s married to an investment banker (Riley Mulvihill) who proves something more complicated than the stuffed shirt he at first seems.
Director Zeina Salame does a fine job juggling all this zaniness and chaos, which amounts to no less than a play within a play within a play. The rest of the cast is strong, including Hannah Rice as the pollyannaish director of the ’30s melodrama under rehearsal, and Conner Criswell as the rather hapless understudy Kevin, whose attempts to depict straight people making out provides one of the shows most hilarious running gags (especially for Her).
By turns silly and sharp, Stage Kiss is a kind of love letter to the joys of theater itself. It takes the audience backstage, quite literally at times, as the cast roams about the theater in a bustle of activity. Ruhl’s play hits all the right notes; it is bittersweet and funny about the romantic shenanigans actors get themselves into, and it’s wryly warmhearted about the collective energy that sustains, and must necessarily sustain, the art of theater.
In Stage Kiss, the audience is the fly on the wall of theater, given a candid peek behind the curtain, and what we see is that, yes, all the world’s indeed a stage, whether we’re hitting our marks or not.
Stage Kiss plays through May 7 at UO’s Robinson Theatre; $14-$16, info and tickets at blogs.uorgeon.edu.