Ruhlly Bad: Stage Kiss

03/12/2014 4:00 AM |


Stage Kiss
Playwrights Horizons

The playwright Sarah Ruhl, best known for her period piece In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), which transferred to Broadway for 60 performances in late 2009, has fashioned here a self-indulgently extended bit of whimsy. An actress known only as She (Jessica Hecht) returns to auditioning after a 10-year absence and immediately wins a role in the revival of a third-rate 1930s drawing room comedy/musical. The first act includes elaborate and lengthy rehearsals of this bad old play, and Ruhl shows no instinct for comic pastiche of older styles. Considering how long she’s been a playwright, it’s surprising that she also shows no instinct for depicting rehearsals, and this can’t just be because she’s trying to get across the amateurishness of the director (Patrick Kerr). The actors seem to move from scene to scene at will, and they’re always stopping themselves for a wig fitting or a smoke break or some private fancy. I suppose Ruhl would answer that this isn’t meant to be a realistic play, but it still feels lazy, facile and self-enchanted.

She’s leading man is He (Dominic Fumusa), who had been her lover years before; as they rehearse, old flames are rekindled. By the top of Act II, they’re back together, and Ruhl unleashes a whole new set of unconvincing characters (a girlfriend, a husband, a bratty teenager). These scenes are so terrible and so emphatically acted that you begin to pine for the more manageable terribleness of Act I. Then the characters put on another, even more unconvincing play—this one contemporary—with the same bizarrely casual rehearsal behavior. When this new play is finally done, our two lead actors come together to tell each other, and the audience, some truths about love… and marriage… and it carries on and on, insufferably.

My favorite moment came when She’s long-suffering financier husband (Daniel Jenkins) spouted some of his own threadbare ruminations on marriage; She, surprised, told him he was a poet. Yes, Ruhl has her leading character compliment Ruhl’s own bad writing, which not even Hecht can make better. A fine and soulful performer in many other plays, here she offers an affected star turn, all limp wrists and tossed hair and stagy mistress-of-monotone intonations. She gamely tries to sell this lame play by offering up a flurry of actressy mannerisms. But when a first-rate actress like Hecht is working in a void like this, the sense of disconnection becomes downright spooky.

How does a play as bad as Stage Kiss (through March 23) get produced? Well, Ruhl is a name, and maybe Playwrights Horizons wanted something from her, and maybe she dug up something from the bottom of a drawer and over-embroidered it. There’s no excuse for this kind of thing, but sometimes productions act as placeholders, and it’s best, as Ruth Gordon used to say, just to draw the veil.

3 Comment

  • i always disagree with you and think you are kind of truly vile.

  • A brief note on this reviewer’s question of “How does a play as bad as Stage Kiss (through March 23) get produced? …maybe Playwrights Horizons wanted something from her, and maybe she dug up something from the bottom of a drawer and over-embroidered it.”

    ‘Stage Kiss’ was commissioned by the Goodman Theater in Chicago, where it premiered in 2011. This whole review is poorly written. But I don’t expect much from a reviewer who didn’t do basic research on their topic.

  • Thank your for the detailed takedown of what makes this play (and Ruhl’s playwriting in general) so terrible. Ruhl being sold as some kind of masterful writer represents the biggest fraud since phrenology.