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A CurtainUp Review
Stop Kiss
When all is said, what is a kiss? An oath of allegiance taken in closer proximity. . .a fashion of inhaling each other's heart --- Cyrano, in Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.

Don't expect to see Callie and Sara, the two heroines of Stop Kiss to rush into that "inhaling" of each other's heart. These are not seventeenth century lovers after all, but two young women making their way in 1998 New York City -- one as a radio traffic reporter, and the other on a fellowship as a third grade school teacher in the Bronx. Callie (Jessica Hecht), the twelve-year veteran of the New York scene (the one watching the movement of cars which neither she or her friends own ) has agreed to look after Sara's cat Caesar who's apparently not welcome in her share of the only apartment she can afford. In fact the opening scene is more riotous than romantic.

Callie perched on a couch in an apartment a few grades below the luxury doorman building level is hidden behind a newspaper. When she comes out from behind the paper to talk on the phone, we only see her lips moving since the television is blaring away and the remote is buried in the couch (the first sign of her chronic disorganization). When Sara (Sandra Oh) enters to deliver Caesar and Callie cheerfully hails his arrival there are no romantic sparks -- just two young women getting acquainted and exchanging confidences about jobs and boy friends (Callie has an arrangement with a college chum which leaves them both free to hop into other beds; Sara has a boyfriend back in the home town, St. Louis, she's just left).

A strong rapport allows acquaintance to flower into friendship. Nothing here that isn't exactly like countless similar relationships formed daily all over New York. Once we get past the ordinariness of it all, however, it becomes apparent that this friendship has an undertow of sexual attraction. Hanging out together doesn't take Callie and Sara to the Seinfeldian Tom's Coffee Shop on the Upper West Side but to some of the trendier bars of the West Village.

The sexual tension is visible in gestures, looks and scraps of conversations. Yet, while ever present, it seems as impenetrable as the brick wall beyond Callie's apartment window. The kiss of the title comes as a cataclysmic leap of self-awareness, trust and caring. Because it could happen as easily between a man and a woman, Stop Kiss transcends the specifics of a gay romance and embraces the broader theme of love and commitment and personal identity.

It is because that kiss, unlike the happy ending kiss in an old fashioned romantic movie, is between two women that the play is about the ugliness of violence as well as the tenderness of a first kiss. After a brief burst of happiness, this kiss turns abruptly into a nightmare situation that gives this play an alarmingly timely edge -- one which resonates in Laramie Wyoming as well as New York City .

While men kissing men and women kising women may not be as rare here as there, such a kiss on a downtown park bench at four o'clock in the morning is an open invitation to the sort of Crazy particularly likely to lurk about in a big city after most people have gone to bed. That unseen Crazy' s random act of violence and its aftermath is what gives Ms. Son's extremely funny and poignant chronicle a painful seriousness.

What we have then is a seriocomedy -- a thoroughly modern story that uses a gay love story to point out the unexpected places to which love can take us. It is also very much a play about specifically New York -- its bright lure and its darker side. Above all it is a well crafted work. The story moves forward with dialogue that while crisp and straightforward rather than poetic, effectively uses the poet's technique of telescoping action and character.

In Joe Bonney, the playwright has been blessed with the perfect director to seamlessly integrate this comic yet touching romance with its tragic consequences. She relaxes the audience by setting up the humor and ordinariness of the story, but never sacrifices the drama and pain of the violence seeded by that fateful kiss..

Ms. Son is equally lucky in the actresses who have been entrusted with her characters. With Jessica Hecht (whose work I've admired in a number of other plays-- see link) as Callie and Sandra Oh as Sara both characters are fully realized, thoroughly endearing and convincing flesh and blood people. Both the director and actors build on the pithy dialogue with gestures and looks that fill in all the gaps in the conversation. When Callie says that Caesar has taken to sleeping on her bed, Sara's quiet, almost lost, "lucky" bares her heart to the audience. Callie's every move is slightly discombobulated, making the job that sends her up in the air in a helicopter each day seem made for her flighty approach to chores like cooking a chicken or keeping her possessions in order. She is also up in the air sort about more important things like her job and her relationships, showing cool self-confidence only when choosing the good restaurants she loves. Sara on the other hand is clearly more grounded, methodically and quietly retrieving the things Callie carelessly buries in the couch cushions. She knows what she wants and is willing to takes a stand on little as well as big things.

The deepening rapport between these different but so sympatico young women makes both touchingly restrained with each other. Their faces during a sleepover date when Sara asks Callie to come out of the bedrom and share the couch with her long enough to bring Caesar out of hiding, convey their feelings with stunning impact.

The acting support is also all of a piece. Kevin Carroll is particularly good as Callie's sometime boyfriend Steve. He also gets some priceless lines (i.e.: when he hears that Sara won her two year teaching job in the Bronx by placing first in a contest in St. Louis, he ask "What did the loser get in this contest?"). Sandra McClain also does excellent work in the double role of the woman who witnessed the assault on the women and the nurse attending Sara). Rick Holmes, is fine as Sara's boyfriend. Saul Stein does the best he can with the small part of the detective assigned to the case.

The apartment created by Narelle Sissons goes far towards building New York City into the character you love and hate. It's the kind of grungy only-in-New York walkup with windows literally up against a brick wall that only people who've been looking at even grungier and smaller spaces can consider worth "inheriting" (as Callie inherited hers through a former boy friend). The simple screen and James Vermeulen's lighting work perfectly to create a hospital and interrogation room within this unit set. The talented David Van Tieghem's sound effects and original music add to the on the mark "New York, New York" flavor.

While scheduled to run only until December 20th, I'll bet my critic's hat that Stop Kiss will be extended. After all, in a season not notable for freshness, this play is the breeze we've all awaited -- bouncing from laughter to pathos without missing a beat and engaging your interest and emotions unflaggingly . Coming as it does from the pen of a thirty-three-year old playwright, it also spells hope of a new talent. Hopefully, the lure of Hollywood lucre won't deprive the theater of seeing the continued maturation of her talent.

Plays with Jessica Hecht: Last Night At Ballyhoo. . . Plunge. . . The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told
Another play directed by Joe Bonney: The Flatted Fifth

By Diana Son
Directed byJo Bonney
Starring Jessica Hecht and Sandra Oh
With Kevin Carroll, Rick Holmes, Saundra McClain and Saul Stein.
Set design: Narelle Sissoon
Costume design: Kaye Voyce
Lighting design: James Vermeulen
Sound design and original music: David Van Tieghem
Shiva/ Papp Public, 425 Lafayette St.(212/ 239-6200) 11/17/98-12/20/98 (extended to 1/31/99 and again, to 2/21); opening 12/05/98
Seen 12/05/98 and reviewed by Elyse Sommer

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