In Kurt Vonnegut’s delightful 1961 short story “Who Am I This Time?,” a shy, bumbling small-town clerk named Harry Nash transforms into an electrifying lothario whenever he’s onstage at the community theater. Helene plays Stella to his Stanley and falls madly in love with him, but realizes that their onstage passion can be sustained offstage only if they keep throwing each other lines from famous plays. Thus Vonnegut captures the dilemma of living in the quotidian world when make-believe promises so much more.
Sarah Ruhl works some variations on the theme of actors falling in love for real in Stage Kiss, now getting its world premiere at Goodman Theatre under the direction of longtime Ruhl collaborator Jessica Thebus. Here, long-estranged lovers are reunited when they’re cast in a creaky 1930s melodrama . . . about long-estranged lovers.
Known only as He and She, the pair take up where they left off decades earlier. She leaves her financial-wizard husband and surly teen daughter, He dumps his perky kindergarten-teacher girlfriend—who (paging Noel Coward’s Private Lives) moves in with She’s husband. But the same irritations and conflicts that punctured their first romance have remained evergreen. The scales finally fall from their eyes with a crash in the second act, as they rehearse a god-awful drama about a hooker and an IRA operative, I Loved You Before I Killed You, or Blurry. (The crack-up is foretold by Scott Jaeck’s long-suffering husband, who tells the adulterous pair, “It’s not love. It’s oxytocin.”)
This isn’t the first time Ruhl has dealt with the idea of onstage identities bleeding over into real life. Her 2007 triptych, Passion Play, traced the offstage reverberations of reenacting the Crucifixion.
But unlike that sometimes lumbering affair, Stage Kiss keeps it light—which is both a blessing and a curse. There’s a certain kind of fun in the running jokes about wobbly scenery, gormless understudies, and a clueless director (Ross Lehman, who’s mastered the seemingly paradoxical art of underplaying with histrionic gusto). But the comedy also keeps the romantic stakes low. It just doesn’t seem to matter whether He and She end up together.
Stage Kiss has an impeccable ace in the hole, though: Jenny Bacon, who plays She with the charismatic vulnerability that made her 1990s performances around Chicago indelible. From her opening audition scene—when she spills the contents of her purse, including tampons, all over the floor—to her game attempts at making silk purses out of the sows’-ear scripts she’s working on, Bacon’s She is thoroughly enchanting.
Early on, She hints at why she’d take such terrible parts, telling Mark Montgomery’s He that there are two only roles for women in theater, “Juliet and Lady Macbeth.” Of her two auditions in recent years, she says, one was for the role of a maid in a Broadway show, the other for an antidepressant commercial. By contrast, He is still living as he did in his 20s, and doesn’t seem any the worse for wear or less castable for it. I wish Ruhl had spent a bit more time on the ageism-sexism nexus in Hollywood and theater. As Tina Fey put it, “I have a suspicion . . . that the definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.”
Ruhl’s script has some of the same problems that plagued another Goodman show: Rebecca Gilman’s 2010 A True History of the Johnstown Flood. Just as there was little to distinguish the melodramatic plays-within-plays in Gilman’s script from the ham-handed story framing them, so Ruhl’s characters are caught in offstage shenanigans nearly as hoary as the situations in the plays in which they’re cast. To her credit, Ruhl at least seems to know that these bits are ridiculous, and she’s clearly having a ball sending up theatrical tropes.
But the self-referential theatrical jokes also tend to obscure the mix of nostalgia and regret driving He and She’s affair. The real emotional meat of the play doesn’t emerge until the final scene, when Jaeck, who is terrific throughout, reminds She that—not unlike acting—”marriage is about repetition.” Where Harry and Helene in Vonnegut’s story need to find a way to keep the theatrical magic going in the unglamorous portion of their lives, She needs to embrace the everyday magic of waking up with the same person each morning.
There are plenty of laughs here, and Thebus mines most of them to great effect with the help of a solid cast. But Stage Kiss feels like a half-baked theatrical souffle: it collapses under the weight of its sweet concept.