Stop Kiss is about a slowly developing love affair between two women who don't, at first, know they're gay. Sara, an idealistic young teacher, has arrived in New York to take a job at an impoverished school in the Bronx. She comes to Callie's apartment because the latter has offered to take care of her cat, Caesar. As played by the Theatre Group's Hilary Blair and Elgin Kelley, both women are edgy and very charming, but the differences between the characters become more and more evident as the play progresses. Callie (Blair) is a radio traffic reporter. She knows her way around New York; she has a male friend, George, with whom she periodically has affectionate, no-consequences sex. But she's also nervous and disorganized, and she takes an oddly passive attitude toward her own life. She hates her job, but can't figure out what else she wants to do. She can't even leave for an evening on the town without strewing the place with tried-on-then-discarded outfits. Sara is fresh and out-of-town sweet, but she's also instinctual in her choices, and much gutsier than Callie.
So far, this is material for a gay -- though smarter and less narcissistic -- version of Sex and the City. But when the women finally kiss on a quiet Greenwich Village street after a late-night visit to the White Horse Tavern, violence erupts. Sara is beaten into a coma; Callie is unable to protect her.
This moment is the pivotal one around which author Diana Son has structured her entire play. Playful scenes in which the women slowly become aware of their mutual attraction alternate with scenes showing the bleak aftermath of the attack.
Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive
Presented by the Theatre Group through January 15, 303-777-3292, theatregroup.org
Violence against homosexuals is a fact of life, not only in Laramie, Wyoming, but in hip Greenwich Village, and the inextricable intertwining of love and desire with hatred and fear that many gay people face would be unimaginable in the heterosexual world. Stop Kiss also touches on other harsh realities of gay life. Sara's parents and her erstwhile boyfriend, Peter, want her to return to their home in St. Louis. If Sara remains unable to communicate her own wishes, she will simply be taken away from Callie and the New York life she has come to love. This would be true even if Callie were a longtime partner. Cases in which parents disregard the claims of their children's lovers, deny them access or refuse to allow them to inherit mutually owned property when those children die are all too common and represent one of many potent arguments for the legalization of gay marriage, or at least for a codification of rights.
But no sooner do these issues arise in Stop Kiss than they melt away again. Son's focus isn't on gay politics. And though the events of the play are harrowing, she hasn't set out to write a tragedy, either. Despite everything, Stop Kiss is a comedy at heart, held aloft by the irrepressible helium of warmth and good humor.
For a moment, we think Peter, played by Josh Hartwell, is going to be a scary, potentially abusive homophobe. This feeling was heightened for me by the memory of the last time I'd seen Hartwell on stage with a comatose woman -- in Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle, where his character was playing a very creepy game, indeed (Hartwell plays creepy brilliantly). During the hospital scenes, I feared for Sara. Peter, though, turns out to be not exactly okay, but no serious threat, either.
In the end, this is a psychological drama, and the central threat is Callie's vacillation and fear of risk. This makes an ultimately happy ending -- well, at least a bittersweet ending -- possible.
The script has movement and wit, but it seems to me a more telling indication of Diana Son's talent as a playwright that two of the play's best scenes are emblematic, more visual than verbal. In the first, Sara inveigles Callie into the fold-out living-room bed with her, in the hope that this will entice a wary Caesar to join them. The two women lie apart, chaste as preteens at a slumber party, and watch their own toes wiggling at the end of the bed, each of them struggling with feelings she hasn't yet admitted to herself. Later, in an act of touching and concentrated tenderness, Callie helps the silent, wheelchair-bound Sara to dress herself.
Blair comes across sophisticated and smart, and also almost puppyishly vulnerable. Kelley is a warmly appealing Sara. You can't help caring about both of them. Billie McBride has directed with a sure hand. Terry Ann Watts does a good job playing against type as the impassive cop; Patty Mintz Figel is strong as a neighbor who's a nurse and witnessed the assault; Scott McLean is a humorously supportive and self-effacing George. What this production proves is that you don't need dazzling production values for a satisfying evening of theater -- just an interesting script, a resonant theme and talented actors.
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