If you look up Stop Kiss on the Internet, you'll note that productions are spreading to every major city like the latest dance sensation. That's because it's impossible not to be drawn to its kindly humanism. Here is the sweetest kind of anomaly: a film noir of the soul. Like film noir, this play has a classic flashback structure and begins and ends in violence, but its heart is in love and trust, rather than murder and betrayal.
Korean American playwright Diana Son's work revolves around a savage gay bashing, brought on by two women sharing their first rhapsodic kiss on a park bench at 4 a.m. We never see, but hear, how they are viciously attacked by a stranger, who beats one of them into a coma. Yet the playwright is not out for a political indictment of homophobic violence; her work is interested in the mysteries of sexual identity and the possibilities of unexpected love.
The play follows the two ostensibly heterosexual women as they gradually break the ties to their former lives, drifting away from their male lovers and coming to hesitant terms with their need for each other. It utilizes an ingenious theatrical device of two converging time lines -- one, of the events leading up to the kiss; the other, of the aftermath, following the kiss. The advantage of this unusual structure is that the horror and the triumph are juxtaposed in the two final scenes.
This work vividly displays a lucid, gentle understanding of human quirks. Son has a special talent for dramatizing how people tentatively waltz around the most profound dilemmas of their lives. She brings to life the defense mechanisms of her two uncomfortable lovers, Callie and Sara, as they come to terms with their mutual attraction: "It's just a bar with a whole bunch of lesbians in it . . . and us." Finally, ruefully accepting her new gay identity, Callie notes that she used to be "the blueberry-muffin lady" to the guy down at the deli. "Now, I'm the lesbian traffic reporter."
Red Hen Productions had to wait two years to obtain the rights to this play. Other theaters with more means but less perspicacity left this oyster unexplored, yet the hens used their ingenuity to extract its pearl and set it off to perfection, with simplicity and unalloyed talent. It is obvious, by the way every nuance shines, that director Jan Bruml treasures the script.
This is one of those rare theatrical occurrences that needs to be scrutinized twice: once for the cast and once for the play itself. On first viewing, audiences are sure to be awestruck by its plethora of radiant, fresh faces and old favorites playing against type. Meg Kelly, who enacts Callie, the savvy traffic reporter, exquisitely martyrs her Manhattan ennui for the love of Sara, a St. Louis schoolteacher. Kelly, with the patrician delicacy of Michelle Pfeiffer and a magnetic grace, has unlimited potential. She can be envisioned in any larger-than-life role, from a decadent Tennessee Williams belle to a Shavian conqueror. In perfect contrast, Lyndsey Lantz imbues Sara with a milkmaid earnestness and insinuating seducer's smile. Together, the actresses make the growing romance as inevitable and natural as a blossoming sunflower.
One of the many virtues of this production is its fairness to all sides. Dancer Ken Gasch, making his acting debut as Sara's still-smitten boyfriend, is an irresistible combination of boyish shyness and sex appeal.
Allen Branstein and John Lynch, who have always specialized in proletarian clowns, here -- as an insouciant part-time boyfriend and a fair but tough-minded detective -- display a remarkable newfound urban sophistication. In a variety of roles, from sympathetic nurse to the well-meaning matron who stopped the crime by throwing a flower pot, Bernice Bolek brings the firm, idiosyncratic conviction of a top-of-the-line character actress.
The playwright, in various interviews, has stated that the impetus for this work came about when she was walking down a New York street with her husband. When they stopped to kiss, a passerby, who mistook them for a same-sex couple, casually snarled at them: "Faggots!" It's one of the great paradoxes of art that from out of such grotesque soil can spring a work of such healing beauty.
For those who worry about such things: After a solid year of lunatic nuptializing, Tony n' Tina's Wedding remains the next-best thing to a good dose of laughing gas. The meatballs on the paper plates are as rubbery as ever, and the meatballs who don tuxes are still the worst nightmares of the Italian Anti-Defamation League. The new bridal couple are less comely and far more raucous than their predecessors, bringing them much closer to a Mediterranean L'il Abner and Daisy Mae. Sold-out audiences who still miss their leisure suits adore it, because it's so much easier to laugh at someone else's relatives.
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