About ten minutes after Stop Kiss begins, we learn that its two main characters, a pair of young women oblivious to their surroundings at the moment their mouths met in romantic bliss, were violently attacked while hanging out in a Greenwich Village park during the wee hours of the morning. But while the issue of gay-bashing looms large, Diana Son's drama never mutates into a self-righteous protest or a self-indulgent debate. Instead, it explores the idea that getting the most out of life means assuming risks that, at times, result in unavoidable collisions.
Thankfully, the Theatre Group's production is free from the sort of self-pitying or self-mocking attitudes that undermine most politically charged plays about gay life. Director Billie McBride provides the 1998 off-Broadway hit with a tender, straightforward staging in which intimate episodes shine with dignity and emotional ones rock with intensity. Aided by some strong performances and an urban-spare environment that's both functional and evocative (Charles Dean Packard designed the setting), the intermissionless ninety-minute tale becomes more engrossing with each passing scene.
That's mostly because the playwright appeals to universal feelings -- especially the kind of out-of-nowhere infatuation that's considered off limits -- instead of asking theatergoers to take a high-minded leap of faith. Also, the two leading actresses forge a relationship that's flush with emotional ambivalence and tension. It's a winning combination of writing, directing and acting that invites the audience to accompany the characters' odyssey instead of coolly observing it. (This past spring, a similarly down-to-earth tone marked the Theatre Group's charming production of Beautiful Thing, which examined the budding romance between two working-class teenage boys.)
Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive
Presented by the Theatre Group through January 27
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The journey begins when Sara (Maura Barclay Gingerich), an adventuresome teacher from St. Louis, pays a visit, pre-arranged through a mutual friend, to temporarily warehouse her cat at the apartment occupied by Callie (Hilary Blair), a play-it-safe traffic reporter who moved to the Big Apple eleven years earlier from an "upstate countrified suburb." Determined to make the most of a recently won two-year teaching fellowship, Sara waxes optimistic about her new job at a Bronx elementary school. "Best of luck," Callie quips to this almost total stranger. "And if it gets too rough, go home."
Centered on the aforementioned attack, the play moves back and forth in time and features a number of interesting side comments and conversations, most notably those between a hard-boiled police detective (strongly played by Gwen Harris) and Callie, traumatized beyond comprehension by the fact that Sara now lies in a coma. There are also a couple of scenes in which Mrs. Winsley, a Greenwich Village matron (given a spot-on rendering by Patty Mintz Figel), offers some seemingly innocuous observations that, like a lot of remarks overheard in conversation in New York, are provocatively run-of-the-mill. Of her West Village neighborhood she dryly says, "The fact that it's Graceland for gay people doesn't bother me." Seconds after telling the detective, who is black, that by throwing a flowerpot at the attacker, she -- not the police -- saved Callie and Sara, the elderly woman nonchalantly adds, "You'd think it was Harlem." (As is the case with many of the play's passing comments, though, Mrs. Winsley's revelation that she and her book-editor husband live over the White Horse, a tavern famous for its literary clientele, comes off as overly contrived.) There are also brief scenes featuring Sara's anguished ex-boyfriend, Peter (competently played by Tim Salmans), and some whimsical episodes with Callie's on-again, off-again lover/friend, George (delightfully portrayed by Darrell Miller).
But the heart of the drama lies in the relationship that develops between Callie and Sara. Despite Callie's admonition to flee Manhattan at the first sign of trouble, Sara and Callie become fast friends, sharing dinners and swapping late-night stories about each other's failed relationships. "Why would you say to someone, 'I will stay with you even if I outgrow you?'" Sara asks, just minutes before racing upstairs to quiet one of Callie's noisy upstairs neighbors -- followed, of course, by a horrified Callie urging instant conciliation. It's just one of several episodes pointing up the fact that Callie carefully swerves to avoid life's rough spots, while Sara straddles them at dangerously high speeds. Except, that is, when it comes to braving the waters of their mutual affection: Both women seem equally reluctant to take that plunge.
Throughout, Gingerich and Blair lend abundant warmth and dimension to their portrayals, managing to remain emotionally spontaneous and technically in command at every turn. By the time they reach a crucial scene near play's end, words become almost irrelevant. During a moment of nudity that's handled with beauty and discretion, it's clear that the love that passes between this habitual swerver and her stubborn counterpart now transcends mere physical attraction or curiosity. The same can safely be said for the Theatre Group's marvelously realized production.