Stage Kiss at the Guthrie Theater

Todd Gearhart and Stacia Rice. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Todd Gearhart and Stacia Rice. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The tone of the comically overwrought show within Sarah Ruhl’s splendidly-crafted backstage satire Stage Kiss (at the Guthrie, through Aug 30) is described, with no lack of consternation from its director, as “slippery.” Nobody is really sure if it should be played earnestly or for laughs, and no one wants to make up their mind about it. Perhaps by design, slippery is also an apt descriptor for Ruhl’s play, which skewers storytelling conventions while at the same time utilizing them to great effect. Happily, unlike the disaster of the show(s) within the show, the Guthrie’s production of Stage Kiss is marked by assured direction from Casey Stangl and confident, committed turns from a cast asked to run the gamut of emotions and tones.

The story centers on two unnamed middle-aged actors (played with aplomb by Stacia Rice and Todd Gearhart) with a sordid and passionate past who are by chance (fate?) cast opposite one another in roles that resonate a bit too closely with reality. The dynamics of repulsion and attraction between these two characters is the engine for the play and provides a dramatic center while their surroundings, filled with zany personalities and malfunction, serve to riotously deride their delusion-riddled life choices.

The offbeat and many times unpredictable nature of the proceedings is delivered with a refreshing dose of dry irreverence. The show knows and reveres the tropes it mines, but it is also marked by a restless impulse to spice things up. That being said, the play never veers too far into unconventionality for its own sake, and doesn’t seem too in love with its own words.

For every biting bit of commentary, there is a dose of impressive physical comedy or awkward situational humor. (In this regard, particular praise is deserved for Charles Hubbell and Grant Fletcher Prewitt, respectively the aloof director and his inept protege.) The entire cast has great chemistry, which is as vital for the leads in their impassioned interactions as the company as a whole, as it allows the show to move rapidly without losing momentum.

Much of this momentum can be credited to fluid, kinetic blocking that allows the cast to flex their muscles. The versatile, clean, and occasionally gorgeous set design by Todd Rosenthal and Devon Painter’s beautiful and playful costumes also heighten the proceedings

In light of these many strengths, it may be trivial to point out that the tone of the production occasionally veers too close to sentimentality, particularly in its conclusion. Nevertheless, even its most saccharine moments are delivered with confidence and prove effective. Yes, even when the show errs, it does so with compelling and convincing surety. It is hard to imagine anyone not enjoying this production of a very funny, smart play.

David and Chelsea Berglund also review movies at their site Movie Matrimony.

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