A smooch in Manhattan leads to plot detours galore in the comedy-drama Stop Kiss
It starts like a sitcom. Diana Son’s Obiewinning comedy-drama Stop Kiss, Encore Presentations’ dinner-theater attraction at Jamesville’s Glen Loch Inn restaurant, opens when an idealistic newcomer from the Midwest tries to find a place to board her cat. Blonde Sara (Danielle Valeriano) left a well mannered Quaker school in St. Louis and, after winning a fellowship competition, finds herself a teacher in the battle-zone Bronx. She wants to make a difference in student lives. The city, she is learning, is a tougher place than she imagined, and not just because her apartment building won’t allow pets. Accommodating her is city-hardened brunette Callie (Sarah Reid), a traffic reporter.It’s a cute meet for a not-so-cute story.
The first several scenes take place in Callie’s rent-controlled but slovenly apartment.
These make us feel that Sara and Callie’s relationship is a replay of The Odd Couple. Callie is always falling behind in her halfhearted attempts to stash unwashed laundry.
The always well-groomed Sara is forgiving of the squalor, apparently pleased with what she finds in the more experienced Callie. When a balled-up discarded garment works it way up between the cushions on Callie’s couch, Sara tosses it away without so much as a grimace.
Contrasting physical styles imply they are opposites. Sara glides as light-footedly as a fawn, shy and smiling. Callie throws herself around like an angry buffalo. In one memorable scene she struggles to get on a pair of pantyhose, hopping around, trying to pull the top over her rump.
Work separates them as well. Callie finds no glamour in flying around in a helicopter.
The traffic she observes is a river of tension whose conflict is constant, never to be resolved. Sara, meanwhile, finds solace in small victories like teaching the little girl who can finally sign her name—in the third grade. Always favoring the positive, Sara makes a near swoon, “I love . . . New York.” The telltale pause points in different directions. Is there some doubt whether she loves the city? And why not some guy?
Both the 20-something women have men in their lives, but unlike Carrie Bradshaw and friends, they seem indifferent about seeking new relationships. Sara has an old beau in St. Louis, Peter (Mike McKay), whom we meet in the second act, a decent enough chap. Although she lives alone, Callie sleeps regularly with George (Joshua James), in a non-monogamous relationship. Such is the casualness of sexual intercourse these days, that George, a hunk sometimes seen shirtless, ranks only as a “friend” rather than a lover. George is awarded snappy lines, however. When he learns that Sara’s fellowship to the Bronx was first prize in a competition, he cracks, “What did the loser get in this contest?” The plot lines that seem to be developing into a kind of young-people-in-the city comedy-romance, a la Friends, take an abrupt shift with the gruff interrogation of Detective Cole (Robert G. Searle), trying to determine how Sara was badly beaten by street thugs. Through the questioning we learn of the offstage episode implied by the play’s title. As Callie and Sara were leaving a bar at 4 a.m., they chanced upon a park bench where they do indeed kiss. Not much in itself, but enough to set off the crazies, one of whom offers the girls $50 to come to his apartment and make out because watching them would be such a turn-on. That’s just before the assault that leaves Sara hospitalized.
Around this time, less than a half-hour into the action, we also realize that playwright Son is presenting scenes out of chronological sequence, so that we will go on to see Callie and Sara interacting before the episode on the park bench. Keeping all the action together, with multiple shifts of tone, is a director’s challenge, which is exactly why M. Marie Beebe, a recent student of Steve Braddock’s at Le Moyne College, has taken this on. There are constant changes of costumes, with performers running back and forth in the dark between the hospital bed and Callie’s apartment.
In truth, the venerable space upstairs at the Glen Loch, lacking a raised stage or wings, is not the ideal venue for such an ambitious enterprise. Some scenes, such as the telling observations of a neighbor named Mrs. Winsley (Kasey M. McHale), appear in the middle of the room, over the shoulder of the audience and closer to the main action.
Thematically, Son’s structure makes a great deal of sense because it allows us to understand the relationship between Callie and Sara in rising increments. Telling in an unexpected way is Callie’s outrage with Sara, when the teacher makes light of an invitation to attend an awards dinner where Callie is not expected to be cited. It is only after the news of the beating that we find out how badly Callie wanted Sara to care. Lots of playwrights, Harold Pinter and Thornton Wilder for starters, have played effectively with chronology, but Son’s efforts resemble those of filmmaker Sergio Leone in the director’s cut of Once Upon a Time In America (1984) in that all of our circling around leads to illuminating the ambiguities of the most significant action--in this case the kiss--only in the last scene.
The issue of gay-bashing, even if of putative lesbian characters, has led programmers around the country to slate Stop Kiss in tandem with Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project. Both plays might please the same audiences, but Stop Kiss’s portrayal of two opposed characters’ search for genuineness amid superficial and tentative relationships puts it in another class entirely. Playwright Son instead pursues that calling of E.M. Forster from decades ago, “only connect,” something too hard to do in a commitment-phobic world.
Stop Kiss not only marks the debut of director M. Marie Beebe, it is also the launch of Encore Presentations, founded by Beebe (often known as Marguerite) and her husband, Stephen, one of the best technicians in community theater. Fittingly, all sound cues—such as doorbells and phones--are conspicuously perfect. Director Beebe has worked conscientiously with her young cast on physical characterizations and on stabilizing the rapid shifts in tone of scenes radically disconnected. A certain earnestness, however, undercuts some of the play’s humor. Previous local productions, at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company in 2001 and the Syracuse University Drama Department’s Black Box in 2002, are remembered as “Seinfeldian” and “rollicking,” not adjectives that come to mind here.
Sarah Reid, who provides the dramatic heavy lifting as the strong yet needful Callie, bristles with comic energy that can turn an exposed bra strap into a gag. She is undercut, though, by hurried speech with falling cadences.
Jamesville’s Glen Loch has long been one of the area’s most favored dinner theater venues. It’s here that Encore Presentations brings us audacious, meaty fare. o
This production runs through Dec. 18.
See Times Table for information.