Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Patrick McLean.
There is much to admire about Stop Kiss, Diana Son’s 1998 hit about a lesbian couple that is now being revived by Pride Films and Plays and Arc Theatre. First of all, there is the simple fact of its existence: Stop Kiss was one of the first mainstream plays dealing head-on with the lesbian experience at a time when being gay was still, for most people, something you whispered about. Then there are the two women at its front: very likable, well-written characters whom it is easy for the audience to engage with and root for, played in this version by two very relatable and talented actresses. There is even the fact that Son does not pull punches when it comes to the difficulty of being gay in 1998 America, as one of the women is beaten nearly to death (offstage) in what would today be classified as a hate crime. Son even messes around with chronological order, which is something I generally enjoy in a play. And in this production there is also a totally rocking 90s soundtrack as well.
So why then was I less than enthralled with the play?
It certainly isn’t the performances of the two leads, as director Kanomé Jones has found exceptional actresses to portray these roles. Flavia Pallozzi earns our emotional connection as Callie, a young woman stuck in what she feels is a dead-end job as a radio traffic reporter. Callie hangs out at bars with friends she made in college and has an ongoing love-free friends-with-benefits relationship with one of them (Shane Novoa Rhoades). Floating carelessly through an unsatisfying existence and hoping for some real affection, Callie makes the fateful decision to adopt a cat from Sara (Kylie Anderson), a young school teacher who has just moved to New York from St. Louis and can’t keep her pet in her new apartment.
Anderson is a charming and instantly appealing presence, and Sara’s openness and hopefulness feel to Callie like something missing from her life. She is attracted to this sweet, optimistic soul who (to Callie’s amazement) actually competed for a fellowship to teach in the Bronx instead of the safe Quaker school she was employed in back in St. Louis. As the two characters slowly connect, both Pallozzi and Anderson show us in a series of adorable scenes how two young women, each of whom was previously attracted to men, begin to fall for each other.
These two actors are so wonderful together and Jones is so specific in how she handles them that I probably would have enjoyed the play more if it were a two-hander. But Son’s play is not merely about their relationship, and the structural decisions she made as she included the ramifications of the attack got in my way. Seemingly dozens of very brief scenes—with costume changes between them—jump in and out of different timelines, creating such a choppy feeling that the play never develops the flow it needs to have to propel its central relationship along. Just as we start leaning into a moment, it suddenly ends and rolls into another dim-out—and the fact that all of these breaks allow Jones to highlight a bit more of Mike McShane’s soundtrack isn’t enough to justify them (though the inclusion of Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” at a key moment is a stroke of genius). Though this structure is designed to make the developing relationship bittersweet through our foreknowledge of what happens to the women—and it does—it ended up taking me out of the play far too often. As much as the actors make the relationship absolutely believable, there never seems to be enough time for them to explore it fully.
Additional characters are introduced in connection to the attack: a cop (Joe Faifer) who feels more like a 90s caricature of a NYC detective than the real thing, a witness played by Sheila Landahl who clearly doesn’t connect to the gay thing but tries too hard to be accepting, Landahl’s gentle and caring nurse treating the comatose Sara in the hospital, and Faifer’s scenes as Peter, Sara’s former boyfriend whom she left in the midwest who has flown east with her parents expecting to take her “home” to recover. (Costumer Jennifer Mohr, whose work in most of the play is totally on point, does this character no favors, saddling Faifer with a very cheesy white sweater vest and not doing enough to visually distinguish Peter from his cop character. Even a pair of glasses might have helped.) These characters help further the attack plot, but are all ultimately forgettable despite the efforts of the actors.
Stop Kiss was very well received in its original New York run and has been successfully revived many times since by small theatres and colleges seeking (somewhat) edgy art, and I am certain that many people who see this one will find its central relationship endearing enough to make up for its shortcomings. As much as Jones and her leads work to make that happen, though, it just didn’t add up for me. I’d watch these performers (especially the utterly captivating Anderson) in anything, but this play’s second timeline, filled with dated and stereotypical characters, takes away from rather than adds to its power. I ended up wishing that Son had found another vehicle to allow Callie and Sara to build on what they begin here instead of imposing tragedy on their romance.
Stop Kiss is now playing at the Buena Theatre, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL, until Feb 9. The show runs approximately 90 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.