Lawrence Toppman

Actor’s Theatre whips up Sarah Ruhl’s frothy ‘Stage Kiss’

The chefs at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte have decided to end their 12-year run at 650 E. Stonewall St. with a soufflé: Sarah Ruhl’s “Stage Kiss,” which leavens its fluffy material with a bit of weightier emotion at the last moments.

ATC has done four of her plays, and this bonbon relies more on physical comedy and less on psychological revelation than the others (“The Clean House,” “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” and “In the Next Room – The Vibrator Play.”)

“Stage Kiss” puts us in a house of mirrors, polished to shine but reflecting only surfaces. A character known as She (Lisa Hugo in her ATC debut) gets cast in a play about a woman whose lover from 20 years ago reconnects with her at a moment of crisis, jump-starting their former relationship.

Sure enough, co-star He (Robert Lee Simmons) had a torrid affair with She that ended badly 20 years earlier. They reconnect while acting in this dopey 1930s melodrama, and soon they’re back in bed.

In Act 2, art emulates life again. He and She have broken with their respective partners (Emily Ramirez and Mark Sutch), who then pair off improbably with each other. She’s daughter (Katy Shepherd, who scores in this motormouth role) expresses the most genuine passion in the show – anger – at this casual betrayal. Meanwhile, a writer-director (Dennis Delamar) proposes to cast them in a new play about a couple whose bad choices mean trouble.

Ruhl gives us many small comic moments: A hapless actor playing a butler (Chip Decker) creates chaos with a lost ice cube and a cocktail shaker, and He makes history’s slowest stage exit on a pair of crutches. The physical humor works well, but emotional momentum doesn’t build across these vignettes.

Nothing director Ann Marie Costa can do makes supporting characters less generic. (When a husband is billed as The Husband, he’s not going to have much individuality.) We see at once that He is as bad a match for She now as 20 years ago – which makes us wonder why She does not see it – and a loving twist at the end yields only a mild feeling of warmth.

Decker, ATC’s artistic director and an infrequent actor, has a ball as He’s effeminate understudy. Ramirez stands out in her brief appearance as a Midwestern schoolteacher, who’s both a caricature and a plot device. (It’s impossible to believe He would consider letting the teacher move into his dumpy apartment, or that she’d want to.)

Simmons and Hugo play all they’re given, mostly childish arrogance and bluster on his side and confused neediness on hers. Those traits can’t sustain a full-length battle of the sexes, so Ruhl and Costa take welcome refuge in the madcap humor.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Stage Kiss’

When: Through June 25 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Talkbacks on Thursday night.

Where: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, 650 E. Stonewall St.

Tickets: $29-$33.

Running time: 140 minutes with one intermission.

Details: 704-342-2251; www.atcharlotte.org.

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