I got the feeling while trying to follow the action in the Cider Mill Playhouse’s production of Stage Kiss, that playwright Sarah Ruhl has more than a few gripes about theater people. She takes swipes at writers, actors and directors, painting most of them as the jerks she must have encountered from time to time in her own theatrical experience. Why any company would want to lift that veil is beyond me, but the challenge is there, and the Cider Mill cast and crew dive right in.
Don’t get me wrong: There are a number of funny bits in this overlong play, but it could have had a fairly comfortable conclusion a few times before it actually ends. However, the actors here do the best they can with some pretty confusing material, and the play has been known to get rave reviews.
Stage Kiss basically is about a couple of actors, former lovers, who couldn’t come to terms with their bohemian vs. bourgeois lifestyles years before. Just because they find themselves together again on stage, in a play that in many ways mirrors their real lives, doesn’t mean they should fall into old habits but, predictably, they do. But now she is married with a kid, and he doesn’t hide his disdain for her station-wagon existence. It’s an old cliché and plays out like one.
Less predictable is how the people in their personal lives cope with their infidelities, and, for me, those moments offered the best opportunity for redemption … of the characters, the actors who play them in the show within the show, and the play itself, but it’s a circuitous and contrived path to get there.
That said, our leads, Ezra Barnes (He), whom you may have seen on Law and Order SVU or As the World Turns, and Erika Steinhagen (She), making her Cider Mill debut, are pretty enough and must go from arrogant, sarcastic and surly one moment to timid and unsure the next … at the drop of a hat, or line, as the case may be. I couldn’t help but wonder how many times during the actual rehearsals for Stage Kiss that an actor calling for “line” might have genuinely needed to do that, or when it may have been part of the script. Amidst all the uncertainty about where their heads are at any given moment, the leads get to make out … a lot.
Steinhagen’s face is animated and never not beautiful, even while she is reacting with disgust. For instance, when she tries to deal with kissing the lead’s gay stand-in, played hilariously by Josh Sedelmeyer, the show has some of its funniest seconds.
But I believe it took some brave souls to pull back the curtain to show an audience how unglamorous and tedious the process of bringing a show to life on stage can be. This is especially if the people involved are jerks, which is another reason not to give a wit about them.
The show these characters are trying to produce for a New Haven audience is a sex farce, maybe, or is it a melodrama that bombed when it was first produced back in the 1930s, I think, and does again, getting, um, lousy reviews.
I enjoyed Iris Garrison-Driscoll’s spot-on rendition of a teen daughter, Angela, sickened by her mother’s abandonment of the family, naively but forcefully scolding her mother about the expectations of marriage. Garrison-Driscoll also plays the fictional daughter, Millie, in the former turkey they are reviving.
The pathetically duped girlfriend, Laurie, is well-played by Anna Fearheiley, also picking up two other small parts: Millicent, not to be confused with Millie, and Fight Choreographer. Steinhagen’s character wonders why “everyone has to be called ‘Millicent,’” which made me chuckle later when I encountered the poster in the lobby for the next Cider Mill production, Thoroughly Modern Millie.
Dennis Brito, a New York based actor making his regional debut in Stage Kiss, is great as the long-suffering husband and also as the parallel character in the New Haven production. He handles his comedic and tenderer moments well, only overplaying them when he’s supposed to.
The play being produced, which I think is referred to once as Last Kiss, is equally melodramatic and farcical, so gives everyone a chance to use that old movie upper-crust delivery made famous by actors such as Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant (“Oh Dahling …”). Steinhagen’s character wonders why everyone has to talk like that. Well, they just do.
Last but not least, Tim Mollen is “The Director,” whose hands-off approach to his New Haven actors is transparent as a device for the development of his leads’ on- and off-stage illicit romance. But his slightly effeminate “places everyone” delivery is stereotyped about as far as it can believably be pushed. I thought it was funny, though, as caricatures usually are.
The real director behind all this is Emily Jackson, who had her work cut out for her. Tyler M. Perry is once again the scenic and lighting designer, Anna Grigo is the costume designer (loved the green dress), Ian Michael Crawford is sound designer, Kirsten Knox is the stage manager and Gail King Belokur is the playhouse’s artistic director.
IF YOU GO: Stage Kiss will be passionately performed at the Cider Mill Playhouse, 2 Nanticoke Ave., Endicott, at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and at 3 p.m. Sundays through May 3. There are more than a few favorite four-letter words thrown in, so keep the age of attendees in mind. For tickets : Call 748-7363, or visit https://cidermillplayhouse.thundertix.com/events.