Returning from intermission at the Actor's Theatre of Charlotte's production of Stage Kiss, I was strangely disoriented when I saw the set for Act 2 of Sarah Ruhl's comedy. For most of Act 1, our protagonists were the leading players in a revival of a sentimental drama, The Last Kiss. "She" had been Ada Wilcox, a happily married woman given one month to live, and "He" was Johnny Lowell, the love of her life, reunited with his long-lost love through the generosity of Ada's husband.
- Robert Lee Simmons as “He” and Lisa Hugo as “She” in Stage Kiss. (Photo by George Hendricks Photography)
He and She had also had a youthful romance earlier in their acting careers, before director Adrian Schwalbach had unwittingly united them by casting them as the leads in this sudsy revival. By the end of the play's brief run, He and She have fallen back in love for real, despite the fact that She now has a for-real husband and teenage daughter. So they skip the closing night cast party, the better to consummate their rekindled romance.
Somehow when I saw the rundown Greenwich Village apartment where the lovers adjourned, I momentarily forgot that He was not Johnny Lowell, the celebrated sculptor who flew in from Sweden to be at Ada's bedside. No, He's merely one of the legions of fine actors strewn around Manhattan who have sacrificed the niceties of middle class comfort to pursue their art.
Of course, what Ruhl very much wishes to demonstrate is that, while kissing nine times at each performance eight times a week for four weeks – after additional weeks of rehearsal — She and He have also let themselves forget that they are not Ada and Johnny. Or at least they have allowed themselves to become confused about it.
If you've ever immersed yourself in a major stage role for a couple of months, you already know how easy it is to slip away from the role you're playing in life to the one you play onstage. Shuttling back and forth is an occupational hazard for actors — or a welcome escape.
Watching the rehearsals for The Last Kiss, plus a Schwalbach opus that occupies us in Act 2, we discover additional layers that Ruhl has woven into her comedy. For one, He has richly earned the squalor he lives in, for He is a wretched actor in both of these wretched plays-within-the-play. In The Last Kiss, He is understudied by Kevin, a gay actor who is even more wretched, noticeably uncomfortable with all that hetero kissing.
We can also see that She is not being ensnared by a web of glamor as she endures Kevin's awkwardness, an injury to her co-star, and eventually an injury of her own. In the final Actor's Theatre production at their Stonewall Street location, we see the artifice that goes into theatre on a stage that is almost stripped bare of scenery.
But there must be artistry if we're to believe we're really watching an incompetent director directing wretched actors in wretched plays and that an able actress, after a long hiatus, can return to the stage and be so seduced by the experience. Our director, Ann Marie Costa, helps us to navigate, deftly calibrating the inadequacy we see from Robert Lee Simmons as He/Johnny and the wild incompetence we see from Chip Decker as Kevin.
Decker gives us more excess than Simmons, who gives plenty, so it's quite clear that Costa has them both shunning restraint. When it comes to Schwalbach, a director who devoutly avoids prescribing how his actors should act, Costa no doubt found that Ruhl was taunting her into decisiveness. What we get from Dennis Delamar, then, is just a slight winking acknowledgement that directors' sanctimonious abdication of their directing responsibilities is absolutely absurd, particularly when a script is bad — or you're also the playwright.
When we first see her, She doesn't give the best audition for Ada. In fact, She arrives so late that auditions are actually over. From the outset, Schwalbach's laxity is working in her favor, so Lisa Hugo must constantly be deciding how much or how little of She's fallibility should be added to all the shoddiness and incompetence surrounding her. I can almost hear Costa telling Hugo, "go with your instincts," echoing Schwalbach. Otherwise, how would Hugo's performance come off so naturally without ever seeming to be calculated?
It's easy enough to track Mark Sutch in this cast, playing both Ada's and She's husband, but Emily Ramirez and Katy Shepherd conspire on a flipflop. Ramirez plays Ada's daughter before returning as He's bong-puffing girlfriend after the break, while Shepherd goes from Ada's maid to She's daughter. Sutch gets to be the first grownup in the room, catching up with the wayward actress, a welcome infusion of sanity. Yet even more welcome, in an undeniably cerebral comedy, is the real emotion that Shepherd brings us as the abandoned child.
Ultimately, those family moments aren't intended to stick with us. That's why Ada and Johnny have names but the actors who play them have none at all. What Ruhl has written, masquerading as a comedy, is a meditation on the nature of theatre and playacting.
The anger of Charlotte Squawks: 12 Angry Hens can be difficult to perceive at times. Surveying the foibles of our city, state and nation since last year's 11th Glower, producer Mike Collins and writer Brian Kahn came up with craft beer, airline bonus miles, Rocket Mortgages, Johnny Manziel and food chains as fresh new objects of satire. Win or lose, the Panthers and the Hornets always get a song parody apiece at Booth Playhouse, so that segment was a black hole in this year's satirical cavalcade. In the ongoing lampooning of Morris Jenkins and Bobby, their latenight vigils have now blossomed into bromance.
- Charlotte Squawks: 12 Angry Hens runs through June 26 at Booth Playhouse. (Photo by LunahZon Photography)
So a backhanded thanks must go to the angry hens in Raleigh who hurriedly passed HB2 and to our lame-brained governor who hurriedly signed it. The bathroom hysteria and the nationwide backlash were the sparks that Kahn sorely needed to make Squawks squawk. Patrick Ratchford, who responds to Mr. Jenkins' overtures so repellently as Bobby, reprises his Governor McCrory impersonation in "This Is So Unfair, Man." This parody of Johnny Cash's "I've Been Everywhere," the second of the night, allows McCrory to catalogue the businesses that have voiced disapproval of HB2 and scrapped plans to move here. And "Let 'Em Pee," parodying the Beatles' "Let It Be," underscores the stupidity of it all.
If anyone stole the show from Ratchford, it was Robbie Jaeger, who took flight as Mr. Jenkins in a weird Dirty Dancing mashup. Weirder yet was his stint as a crazed Charlotte trolley car driver in "Helter Streetcar," a parody of the Beatles' "Helter Skelter."
It's a political year, but I can't say that the pokes at survivors Bernie Sanders, Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump are as pointed as those aimed at the dearly departed Ted Cruz. I had to wonder whether the annual filmed appearances by Pat McCrory could possibly continue.
The answer came early as McCrory began his customary video on the five screens spread around the Booth – and was emphatically stopped almost as soon as he started, with a classy simulation of Gov Pat being flushed down a toilet. One of the best moments ever for Squawks.