Fort Worth — There’s a strange, undeniable intimacy to performing live theater with a group of people. You work together, eat together, drink together, share the same impenetrable inside jokes, suffer under the same oh-so- tyrannical director together. In all likelihood, for a brief period, you’ll end up spending more time with your cast-mates than you will family and friends. You’re soldiers in the trenches for a short, intense period, and the relationships that develop can be equally intense, can blur the lines between character and actor. It’s this space, “the slipping point between reality and illusion,” per the playwright, that Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss explores. Circle Theatre’s excellent production of what might be Ruhl’s warmest piece is one of those rare, perfect unions between director and cast, with beautifully controlled directing by award-winning local luminary Emily Scott Banks, gliding smoothly between moments of sidesplitting hilarity and grounded emotion, and funny, heartfelt performances from the entire ensemble.
An actress—listed in the program only as “She”—arrives late, and frazzled, to her first audition in years for a show in New Haven. Despite getting off to a rocky start, she’s cast as the female lead of the moldy 1930s…tragedy? Comedy? Musical? Unclear. So the play’s not much to write home about, but hey—she’s got the lead. The only catch is her co-star: former love of her life (listed only as “He”), and the man who broke her heart (and vice versa). The two ended badly and neither is particularly enthusiastic about renewing their acquaintance, especially as She’s married with a teenage daughter and He’s in a relationship. But as the circumstances of the play force them into intimacy—naturally, the former lovers whose relationship ended badly are playing former lovers, whose relationship (you may be surprised to hear) ended badly—old feelings resurface and the two fall into a passionate affair, leaving their respective partners. But can their relationship survive offstage?
This particular piece lives and dies by the chemistry of its two leads. How lovely, then, that both She (Sarah Rutan) and He (Patrick Bynane) rise to the occasion to turn in equally stellar performances. Bynane, last seen at Circle in Who Am I This Time? as the folksy director of a small-town production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” brings a necessary edge to this character, going against his own general air of unshakeable affability. The actor makes it easy to see why someone would fall head over heels for this guy and, even more impressively, makes it easy to see why they’d stop. The chemistry between the two feels solid, imbued with real history. Rutan’s She is essentially a grab-bag of neuroses during the initial scene, but gradually reveals deeper layers of the character—her dissatisfaction with her career, her life, and her relationship with her solid, banker husband. The character’s slide from animosity to friendliness to something more with her former lover feels incredibly natural, but her relationships with her family are equally vivid. Her slow realization of what she’s given up by choosing a romantic fantasy over the reality of her day-to-day relationships comes to a head in the final, emotionally raw scenes, and the play ends with a realistically happy ending—happy, but not too happy.
The ensemble deserves equal praise, but perhaps especially Jeremy Schwartz in his Circle debut as the dual roles of Husband and Harrison (a cast mate of the two leads in their bit of 1930s nonsense). Schwartz’s gruff, working actor has some of the funniest bits of slapstick in the first act. But his turn as the Husband is something else—clear-eyed about his wife’s penchant for falling for co-stars (“You have kissed each other, let’s see, nine times a night, eight shows a week, four-week run, that’s two hundred and eighty-eight times,” he calculates after tracking the lovebirds down to the male lead’s shabby East Village apartment. “That’s not love. That’s oxytocin.”), and a realist, but still a romantic in his own way. Ashlee Waldbauer gives a nicely subtle performance as the couple’s daughter Angela, who seethes coldly at her mother for her indiscretions; as played by Waldbauer, she might be the most mature person onstage. As the Director, David Fenley’s performance is just the right mix of befuddlement and enthusiasm to portray this collection of bad directorial stereotypes (“Use it!” he chirps obliviously to the actress in a moment of real emotional distress). Adolfo Becerra charms as the sweet, deeply untalented right-hand man to the Director, and his physical comedy in particular won over the audience. And Natalie Young’s sweet-on-the-surface girlfriend to Bynane’s character is a masterclass in Midwest passive-aggression.
The set design by Clare Floyd DeVries supports the movement of the action, starting in a bare, black-box theater space, transforming piece by piece into glamorous ’30s excess for the initial production, then descending into the actor’s grungy New York apartment, which performs double duty as the play draws to a close. So, too do the costumes (designed by Amy Poe) mirror the action—the actors’ street clothes give way to the swoon-worthy elegance of the 1930s (Rutan’s character’s green dress is stunning), hitting bottom with some ’70s-style sleaze (in a later production within the play, Rutan’s character is wearing an outfit that straight-up channels Josie Foster’s teen prostitute from Taxi Driver), then settling back into reality in the final scenes.
“In a way this play is a love note to all the actors I’ve ever worked with,” muses Ruhl in her notes for the New York premiere of the play. Come feel the love at Circle Theatre.