Not content to defy credulity, The Last Kiss — an astonishingly vapid 1932 play by the justly forgotten team of Erbmann, Landor, and Marmel — dares to defy mathematics as well. After all, a big fat zero of a script like this should not be divisible by three. And a mere handful of bad actors should not be able to manufacture, as they have in the revival just opened in New Haven, a lifetime’s worth of theatrical disaster.
Or so a reviewer might have responded to the dreadful play-within-a-play that makes up the first act of Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss, opening now — in reality — at Playwrights Horizons. Happily, I can report that Stage Kiss itself is a gift and a rarity: a superb new romantic comedy that does justice to both sides of the genre equation. It’s moving, smart, and flat-out hilarious.
What’s especially wonderful is how it gets to the hilarious from the moving and the smart. There are no jokes per se in the script, no clownish setup. Rather, Ruhl begins in a bare rehearsal room, where a director named Adrian Schwalbach (Patrick Kerr, sweet and clueless) is running auditions for his Last Kiss revival. Enter an actress identified only as “She”: Jessica Hecht giving a career-redefining performance of such neurotic realism and stagy falseness as to derange your internal gyroscope completely. She poses outrageously, invents the worst drawing-room accent ever, and generally gives a brilliant master class in bad acting.
Yet somehow it makes theatrical sense that she gets cast in The Last Kiss as Ada Wilcox, a 1930s society lady with one month to live. We also accept without hesitation the news that the smoldering semi-dimwit chosen to play Ada’s former lover, Johnny Lowell, is the leading actress’s own former lover, known only as “He.” In Dominic Fumusa’s perfectly calibrated poor-man’s Cary Grant performance, “He” is exactly as attractive as he is repellent. You immediately understand how the breakup of “He” and “She” twenty years earlier, like the breakup of their characters Johnny and Ada, was as sordid as professional narcissists could make it.
The first act takes us through the development of The Last Kiss, from that audition through rehearsals through the New Haven opening, as the cast gets more facile in its idiocy and various problems ensue. The leading man busts an ankle. The understudy can’t kiss. Worst, perhaps, is the discovery of just how inane the material is, with its string of clichés, improbable coincidences (several characters are named Millicent), and sublimely stupid 1930s songs (aptly set to music and accompanied at the piano by Todd Almond):
Can we live on love and cereal?
Only in the rain.
Is the moon all that ethereal
In Italy or Spain?
But if Stage Kiss it were merely a can-you-top-this collection of theater disaster stories, it would quickly stale. Instead, it does something much more complicated. It gradually lets the inner and outer stories interpenetrate, suggesting that, however silly, the thirties romance, repeated ad nauseam along with the stage kisses that must be constantly staged and rehearsed, eventually alters the current reality. Just as Ada and Johnny reunite thanks to Ada’s self-sacrificing moneybags husband, so do “She” and “He.” And as long as their rekindled love remains within the bubble of showbiz, their attachment seems not just excusable but desirable. That “He” has a young schoolteacher girlfriend, and that “She” has a self-sacrificing moneybags husband (and teenaged daughter) are offstage trifles. At least in act one.
Successful farce requires the absolutely faithful adherence to logic, and the ridiculous inflation of the pressures that logic must try to contain. One reason backstage farces (most notably, Noises Off) are often successful is that they naturally provide both parts of the formula. The timeline of a production’s development includes all the mounting hysteria a farceur could want, and the process itself makes a logical framework. To this, Ruhl has added an exquisite ear for the absurdities of stage folk, and a great love for them too, as the title suggests. The play’s dedication reads, in part, “for actors.” And the actors, from top to bottom, return that love in spades.
But the dedication also reads, in part, “for first loves.” And as Act Two turns toward the external lives of the leading actors, you realize it is not just a love letter to the stage, but a poison pen letter as well. In previous plays like Eurydice and In the Next Room and Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Ruhl has always found ways to suffuse a deep concern for morality with the perfume of whimsy; here she flips the formula. Actors’ vaporous narcissism, she demonstrates, has consequences beyond hilarity; it can also prove stunting to the self and irresponsible to others. And so, as “She” and “He” take up together, what seemed a farce in act one is revealed in act two as romantic comedy: the kind in which people can and do get hurt.
Not that it loses its sense of humor. “She” and “He” get cast in a new play called I Loved You Before I Killed You, or: Blurry; it’s the story of an IRA killer who falls in love with a myopic Brooklyn whore. This one is even worse than The Last Kiss, even if it brings the evening to a satisfying and surprising resolution. In truth, though, the second act, for all its stranger beauties, cannot quite match the first. Rebecca Taichman’s superbly breakneck direction never lets up but, inevitably, the play’s mature realizations are smallish letdowns. Or maybe it’s not so much inevitable as purposeful. “Marriage is about repetition,” says the husband of “She” in the touching denouement. “Every night the sun goes down and the moon comes up and you have another chance to be good. Romance is not about repetition.” Good plays, Ruhl suggests, are good marriages. But, let’s face it, good marriages can be a little dull.
Luckily for us, Ruhl writes her cake and eats it too, giving us two hilariously bad plays inside a seriously good one. In any case, when the director of I Loved You Before I Killed You warns the audience at its premiere that “there will be strobe lights and gun-shots, for those of you who have seizures,” he ought to add that, for the rest of us, there will be difficulty breathing. Stage Kiss is that funny.
Stage Kiss is at Playwrights Horizons through March 23.