If you love Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” you will like Sarah Ruhl’s “Stage Kiss” at San Francisco Playhouse, running through Jan. 9.
Both are backstage comedies, actors shown in a play-within-a-play and “being themselves” as actors rehearsing and performing deliberately lame plays. “Noises Off” is a hysterically funny farce, requiring superb precision (and failing as a film because the point is to see it happen live) in performing a silly burlesque, “Nothing On.”
“Stage Kiss” is an amusing story of former lovers/theater partners being cast as lovers in a similarly feeble romantic play, an overblown 1930s spoof called “The Last Kiss.”
Full disclosure: ever since I first saw “Noises Off” in the Savoy in London some three decades ago, I’ve been a (perhaps irrationally) fanatic fan, accumulating a total of eight performances since the Savoy in six different productions. While I enjoyed “Stage Kiss,” chances are I will not travel around, seeking new productions. One reason: Frayn’s play is a complete, unashamed and glorious slapstick; Ruhl is trying to add a romantic element to the romp, and that doesn’t work very well.
But “Stage Kiss,” directed effectively by Susi Damilano, still triumphs with a fine cast and two brilliant performances in roles that would be not special in the hands of lesser talent. The plot is about two actors, former lovers and separated by many years, accidentally, awkwardly reunited as the leads for “The Last Kiss.” Will their stage kisses lead to rekindling an old – decidedly destroyed – romance or… ?
With clever economy, Ruhl named them He (Gabriel Marin) and She (Carrie Paff). There is also a director in the play, called – yes – Director (Mark Anderson Phillips). While Marin, Husband (Robert Faltisco), and other cast members – Allen Darby, Millie DeBenedet, and Taylor Iman Jones (especially) all do well with roles some of which are not fully sketched out, Paff and Phillips are sensational.
Paff, as She, has the major role, and she is amazing as the veteran actress for whom the separation between reality and make-belief has long faded away. Paff’s body language and facial expressions combine to enhance the text in portraying a borderline neurotic, funny-pathetic actor and woman, bungling but still commanding star of the (long-gone) past. Phillips also impresses mightily with a performance that’s almost completely kinetic: he has virtually no lines, but his mumbled, incomplete responses to situations create the comedy’s funniest moments. There is no way from the outside to know how much of this tour de force comes from the actor and how much from the (real) director, Damilano, but the result is irresistible.
Unlike Playhouse’s other productions, “Stage Kiss” has minimal sets, but it’s not a problem – the play needs even less realism that it has now.