Two nameless actors, a man and a woman, hide behind the stage curtain in an empty theater. Twenty-odd years ago they were lovers. Now they are playing lovers in a musical, and past emotions are climbing to the surface.
The show, which recently opened at Playwrights Horizons, is actually three shows in one. There is the romance between the actors (played by Jessica Hecht and Dominic Fumusa) and then there are the two plays they perform in — a musical melodrama and a drama about a prostitute and an officer in the Irish Republican Army.
The actors tease each other about how bad the plays are, but the quality puts the audience in a predicament. When two of the three plots are poorly acted and badly written, the overall experience is in jeopardy.
The criticism is not of Sarah Ruhl’s writing. “Stage Kiss” is a theatrical satire as well as a romance, and the weak writing is intentional. Yet this metatheatrical script distracts from what is easily the most compelling part of the play — the relationship between the actors.
It is a relief when the actors can be themselves. The performances feel smoother and more authentic, and the dialogue is more powerful, but other elements of the show overpower the relationship.
Many theatrical tricks are employed over the course of the play. There is quite a bit of slapstick, so prepare for tripping, door slamming, some extremely uncomfortable kissing, a clunky monologue divided between the two leads and a seemingly random four-part rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening.” While the show hits a lot of notes, unfortunately it never quite strikes the right chord.
The play is more successful as a satire than as a romance. It follows the production process from auditions to rehearsals and performances to reviews. The characters struggle with costume changes and the installation of props. The sight of real stagehands dressing and redressing the stage between scenes provides an unspoken reminder the audience is watching a parody of a very real process.
The insight into the world of theater is warm and teasing, like an inside joke between an old married couple. Though the show sometimes stumbles, it is generally successful if considered as a love story not between two actors, but as a commentary about actors’ love of the theater.
“Stage Kiss” is playing at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., through April 6.
A version of this article appeared in the March 12 print edition. Suzanne Egan is a staff writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.