More than any contemporary playwright who comes to mind, Sarah Ruhl’s characters inhabit worlds wholly her own. Even when she adopts a historical setting, as with In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), her lyrical sensibility fashions heightened realities, where a house of string or a dead man’s perpetually ringing cellphone seem natural. Her characters tell jokes and voice startling insights with a poet’s tongue. I was fortunate to catch Circle X’s production of Eurydice when it premiered in Los Angeles in 2006, and it devastated me. Ten years later, it remains one of the most remarkable evenings of theater I’ve ever experienced.
Stage Kiss, now up at the Geffen Playhouse, was born, according to the playwright, out of workaday rehearsals in the decade or so since. Altogether, it is a more conventional and decidedly less Ruhl-esque experience. Bart DeLorenzo, who has previously directed her work in productions at the Odyssey Theatre and South Coast Repertory, oversees this backstage meta-farce about a 1930s melodrama in which two ex-lovers reconnect and fall in love, played by two actors and ex-lovers who reconnect and fall in love — and then just as swiftly and predictably (though more scenically), out of love.
The first act/second act parallel structure makes clever use of doubling, where the bit players in the first half reappear in a slightly revised, winking incarnation in the second act. (“I’m actually 23 but I always get cast as teenagers,” says one young actress, before turning up a while later as a real-life, high school–age daughter.)
In a nod to these reshufflings, the lovers are known only as She and He. The self-conscious artifice lets Ruhl explore the relationship between reality and the shadow worlds we create with our minds, both on- and offstage. Then there’s the idea of how theater becomes a canvas for the projection of our desires, and sometimes even drives the desires themselves.
The trouble is that the actual characters, their pedestrian choices and even the themes Ruhl tosses around aren’t very novel or absorbing. As He, Barry Del Sherman convincingly embodies the sexually magnetic, emotionally flatlined bad boy most women outgrow, but the character has few surprises and little nuance for him to explore. She is played by Glenne Headly, whose wide-eyed innocence was used to delicious effect as the mark in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and it sort of works here. But Headly’s flat delivery too often mirrors the over-the-top melodrama the play spoofs, particularly in the first awkward encounter between She and He. As a result, the pair’s romance and its collateral damage feels less credible from the get-go, and its stakes lower. Not until nearly the end do we tap into the play’s emotional core, but by then it’s mostly too late. Ironically it’s the Husband (Stephen Caffrey), one of the most peripheral characters, who carries the play’s emotional freight.
The first act makes limited use of the supporting characters, although baby-faced Matthew Scott Montgomery elicits the most laughs in both halves as a woefully miscast understudy, and later, a pimp. Tim Bagley has some amusing, though one-note, moments as the Director who abdicates all creative responsibility to his actors.
There are brief flashes of Ruhl’s characteristic incisive wit throughout, including one moment where He expounds on exactly why theater is superior to film (it has to do with masturbation). But those moments are so bright and rare that they dim the rest of the play by comparison.
Ruhl’s reverence for the transformative effect of both theater and love is clear through the last gentle monologue, but it’s not quite enough to elevate everything that comes before, pleasant enough though the journey is. The artifice that has previously transported her audiences to strange, revelatory landscapes is largely absent from Stage Kiss. In the end, the play’s biggest letdown is how commonplace it is.
Geffen Playhouse, 10866 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; through May 15. (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.com.