In Kiss, directed by Bart DeLorenzo at the Odyssey Theatre, Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón explores the gap (one might say chasm) in perspective between people who live in a war-free society (ourselves, at least for now), and those trapped in the horrors of war who are subject to atrocities committed by vile men, like Syria’s Assad.
But that intent isn’t evident at the start of the play, whose opening sequence involves two couples who get caught up in a network of obfuscation and betrayal after one of the men, Youssif (Kevin Matthew Reyes), falls passionately in lust with his buddy’s girlfriend, Haleel (Kristin Couture) — and she with him. Each man, unbeknownst to the other, has chosen the same day and time to propose. The confused Haleel waffles, unable to break her commitment to her longtime boyfriend, Ahmed (Max Lloyd-Jones), while equally powerless to say no to the ardent and sensually persuasive Youssif. At first, both Ahmed and Youssif’s girlfriend, Bana (Natali Anna), are in the dark, but when they discover the liaison, resentments build to a deadly climax.
Or do they? At this point, the playwright inserts an unexpected twist; the overheated melodrama we’ve been watching morphs into another kind of play entirely, one that touches in a significant way on cultural relativism, the subjectivity of human experience and the role of art and artists in transcribing tragic events.
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If I could say more I would, but so much of the dramatic impact here depends on the element of surprise that to do so would be a spoiler. I will note that although it grows darker, Kiss (almost) never loses its comic edge. Dividable into three scenes, it is strongest in the middle; the last part goes on too long.
As the dominating force in the foursome, Anna stands out for her keen and entertaining performance as a loquacious take-charge gal unafraid to make her feelings known. The other three serve the story capably, but their portrayals could be crisper, and there’s room to expand and deepen their characters.
Designer Katelan Braymer’s lighting creates an integral part of the intrigue, but Raquel Barreto’s costumes are hit-and-miss. Couture’s dress, in particular, is markedly unbecoming (it underscores the mousey elements of her character — but hey, she is being hotly pursued by two men). And Nina Caussa’s scenic design, which covers the backdrop and the floor with what looks like a coat-of-arms symbol, doesn't quite seem apropos, despite its (possibly) oblique reference to Syria's colonial period under French rule. The videography, by contrast, is striking, and helps drive home the play’s ironic point.
GO! Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd, West L.A., through June 18. (310) 477-2055, odysseytheatre.com.