Credit: Handout photo by Cheyenne Michaels

The District has done all right by Sarah Ruhl. The prolific MacArthur Fellow and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist has seen her work interpreted with sympathy and imagination in D.C. several times since Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company staged the world premiere of her Dead Man’s Cell Phone eight years ago. Woolly’s 2010 production of In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play and Forum Theatre’s Passion Play from last spring were both indelible.

Round House Theatre wants to recapture some of that fission, re-teaming Ruhl with Vibrator Play director Aaron Posner for Stage Kiss, a self-referential romantic comedy commissioned by Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2011. The piece is, to quote the director—or rather The Director, a character in the play embodied by a beret-and-vest-wearing Craig Wallace—“tonally slippery.” He’s talking to his cast about the failed 1930s rip-off of Noël Coward’s Private Lives they’re all attempting to revive, but also no doubt echoing a not-so-imaginative line many critics have sneezed out (on a deadline, of course) trying to describe Ruhl’s formula of laughs and existential profundity. The Director’s response to any suggestion an actor makes is “try it!” I don’t know if this is good directing or bad directing, but it certainly does nothing to allay the suspicion that the lowercase-d director, Posner—an artist who has masterfully negotiated slippery material again and again and again—might’ve suffered from similar indecision here. I should disclose that the performance I saw was the fifth preview, and there was one more on the calendar before the official opening night. I can’t imagine the show changed very much; my misgivings about Stage Kiss are mostly on the page.

In Ruhl’s scenario, two fortyish actors who had a passionate affair in their 20s but are now both in committed relationships struggle to control their longings when they’re cast as reunited old lovers. As one interested party tallies up, the script requires them to kiss nine times per show, eight shows per week, for four weeks. That’s a total of 288 lip locks, not including rehearsal. I once had the curious experience of seeing an actor I was dating convincingly pretend to fellate a dude in a play as I watched from my seat between my parents and her parents, so I can relate to this sort of situational obsession with math.

With a half-dozen world-beating Cole Porter songs, this could really be something, but instead Ruhl has delivered an arch, for-theater-nerds-only farrago wherein the leading lady is named “She” and her foil is named “He” and her husband is called “The Husband” and their director is known only as—well, I already said. That pretension arises from Ruhl’s impulse to connect her modest backstage farce with grander themes of fidelity and forgiveness, and that overreach keeps Stage Kiss from being as funny or sad—or funny-sad—as, say, Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers, to cite just one slippery piece of material that Posner illuminated with great success just 13 months ago.

Even worse for something that purports to be a romantic comedy, Stage Kiss isn’t half as sexy. Dawn Ursula and Gregory Wooddell play the nameless central couple. While both are strong actors doing good work individually, they’re ill matched here. For us to buy this story, there needs to be enough sexual chemistry between them for us to believe they’d burn down their entire lives to chase it. For whatever reason, those sparks just don’t spark.

The figures surrounding them are all hackneyed: Wallace’s dandyish Director tries to disguise his indecision as grave contemplation. Michael Glenn plays a gay understudy who can’t stop himself from wincing when required to kiss Ursula’s character onstage, har-har. Rachel Zampelli’s character is a grade school teacher from Iowa who cranks her Midwestern accent up to 11 and turns out to be landmine of passive aggression. The ever-tender Todd Scofield manages to give some dimension to the cuckolded banker husband who isn’t at all surprised to find his wife in the apartment of her leading man. And University of Maryland theater student Tyasia Velines, making her professional debut with Stage Kiss, is very funny in several small roles, but especially good when she’s playing the teenage daughter enraged by her mother’s infidelity. Her speech about how no good painter would knowingly fuck a bad painter but good actors fuck bad actors all the time may not be supported by evidence, but it’s a marvelous piece of comedic acting.

Tony Cisek’s set uses a false proscenium arch surrounded by lights, costume racks, and prop tables to suggest the behind-the-scenes milieu for the first act. When we’re watching scenes from the plays—plural—within-the-play, these elements are concealed, replaced by a passable façade of an elegant penthouse living room and then, in Act Two, of a dingy lower-Manhattan studio apartment. These sets indicate a world without really evoking it. It’s the difference between, well, a stage kiss and the kind you give someone when you’ve been impatient to be alone with them.

Maybe for actors that distinction isn’t as significant as we in the audience imagine it is. And maybe Ruhl, for all her intermittent genius, doesn’t have anything more illuminating to say on this particular subject than Samuel and Bella Spewak said in Kiss Me, Kate 65 years ago. With a little help from Cole Porter.

4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. $36–$61. (240) 644-1100. roundhousetheatre.org.

More from WCP