THE BASICS: STAGE KISS, a comedy by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Fortunato Pezzimenti, starring Tracie Lane and Guy Balotine, part of a talented cast of seven, opened on March 25 and runs through April 24, Wednesdays – Friday at 7:30, 3:00 Saturdays (matinees only) and 2:00 Sundays, produced by the Irish Classical Theatre Company in the Andrews Theatre, 625 Main Street Buffalo NY 14203. Irishclassical.com (716) 853-ICTC (4282). Special ASL interpreted show April 20 at 7:30. Runtime: 2 hours with one intermission (bar closed during Covid).
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Two actors who are ex-lovers find themselves starring opposite each other in an off-off-Broadway 1930s melodrama. Soon the lines between “real” life and the stage roles begin to blur, as this romantic comedy turns into a farce while we watch the “play within a play.”
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: As the play STAGE KISS opens, we find the director, willing-to-try-anything, “Adrian Schwalbach,” (played by the energetic Greg Howze) dealing with “SHE,” the actress “Ada Wilcox” who is returning to her stage career and is full of doubts. As the play within a play rehearsal begins, SHE is supposed to kiss the leading man, who hasn’t shown up yet, and so the line reader, “Kevin” (played by funnyman Kevin Craig) is eagerly but very ineptly filling in. Finally “HE,” the suave actor “Johnny Lowell” (played by Guy Balotine) arrives at the rehearsal, and there’s a problem. Turns out that both Ada and Johnny were, at one point in their lives, lovers. This first rehearsal kiss is going to be awkward.
As both the “real” play and the play-within-a-play continue, we meet Ada’s husband (Rolando Gomez), and two other actresses (Marisa Caruso and Christine Turturro). Oh, and Kevin will reappear as needed in the role of understudy, doctor, butler, and pimp. Yes, you read that right. I did say farce early on, didn’t I?
The three stage sets are a bit of a parody. Things begin on a Brechtian bare stage, where the characters are not fully formed but are being “directed.” Then, we are treated to an overdone 1930s stage set, appropriate for a melodrama where the characters are overwhelmed by both the drama and the furniture. And the play ends with the “naturalism” of Johnny’s messy apartment as the “real” characters finally stop acting and emerge as themselves.
Across Main Street, at Shea’s, where they bring in big Broadway touring shows, there was unhappiness at the recent dark and brooding OKLAHOMA! but audiences were reassured when Shea’s got their mojo back with MY FAIR LADY. Similarly, if you found the Irish Classical’s choice of WAITING FOR GODOT last month a little too stark and dispiriting, rest assured that STAGE KISS picks right up with the ICTC’s long history of clever, well-rehearsed comedies. So, go. This one’s a whole lotta fun.
Guy Balotine, with international experience, can pull off roles of insouciant, self-centered characters flawlessly and he does it again here.
And let’s talk about the actors on stage. Experience counts, but experience out-of-town seems to sharpen an actor’s skills. There’s nothing like touring or working on a cruise ship or at a regional theater to chisel down to what’s essential. Guy Balotine, with international experience, can pull off roles of insouciant, self-centered characters flawlessly and he does it again here. Going with him every step of the way with national experience and an MFA from Juilliard was Balotine’s co-star, Tracie Lane. Lane is also the Education Director for the Alleyway Theater. The Army has a formula for success: See one, do one, teach one. Tracie does all three.
I was very excited to see Greg Howze on the ICTC stage, having been a big fan of his for what he’s done with Road Less Traveled Productions (especially in THE MOTHERF***ER WITH THE HAT) as well as LOUISIANA BACCHAE for Red Thread Theater. To me, he has the comedic talent of Don Cheadle and the physical grace of Denzel Washington. I was also very pleased to see funnyman Kevin Craig back in town, having recently earned an MFA from Michigan State. His list of Buffalo credits is as long as your arm, but there’s always one role that I’ll cherish forever, and that was as “Charley Baker” in THE FOREIGNER at the Kavinoky Theatre. He brings a lot of that silly physical comedy to STAGE KISS.
And I was also looking forward to Christine Turturro who plays teenage daughters to perfection including one of the daughters whom I saw up at Niagara University in THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA and here in Buffalo recently in THE UNDENIABLE SOUND OF RIGHT NOW and as Prospero’s daughter “Miranda” in THE TEMPEST at Shakespeare in Delaware Park. Again without resorting to parody she was completely believable in her fourth teenage role in STAGE KISS. Rolando Gomez brought his smooth baritone and good looks to the role of “Husband,” and rounding out the excellent cast with other “utility” roles was Marisa Caruso.
Theater in the round is tricky, because you’ve got to keep the actors moving so that they don’t have their backs to any one section for very long, but at the same time, the action has to be believable.
As usual, Tom Makar’s Sound Design was appropriate, both during the scenes and before and after the play. And one thing you might not notice (and that’s a good thing) was the direction of Fortunato Pezzimenti, who has directed over seventy-five (75!) plays and musicals for Irish Classical. Theater in the round is tricky, because you’ve got to keep the actors moving so that they don’t have their backs to any one section for very long, but at the same time, the action has to be believable. Here, everything seemed completely organic. As I said if you don’t notice that, he did everything right.
Sarah Ruhl (who says she was taught by playwright Paula Vogel) has recently come out with a 2022 book titled “100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater. If you go here, you can read most (all?) of them as you click through. One of my favorites was Essay #36 “Is it bad when comedies make people laugh?” (Spoiler alert… no, it is not.)
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!