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Pretty and privileged, the central character in Diana Son’s Stop Kiss is lucky, as she herself confesses not far into the play. Callie (a delicious Rhea Seehorn) is possessed of a spacious Manhattan apartment, a bodacious set of physical charms, a reasonably chic circle of friends, and a nonstop social life spent in New York’s hippest clubs and restaurants—and in the arms of what seems to be an enviable array of suitors. Even her job sounds out-of-the-ordinary: A radio traffic reporter, she spends her afternoons in a helicopter high above the city, delivering play-by-plays on the snarls that daily send the rest of the island over the edge. She has, perhaps inevitably, developed a gift for understated repartee and a dry, cynical take on life amid the masses.
But, as Son is quick to let us see, Callie’s urban veneer conceals a woman who’s a bit bored—and a bit whiny. As she spends more and more time with her new friend Sara (earnest, pixie-ish Holly Twyford), a St. Louis-bred idealist who’s come East to teach at a Harlem school, Callie begins to understand why: What she thought was a life is, in fact, just a standard of living—and a fairly shallow one at that.
This is hardly the most profound of lessons, but it’s deftly delivered in Stop Kiss, a play that, despite what you may have read elsewhere about Lee Mikeska Gardner’s tightly staged production at Woolly Mammoth, deals with a bit more than the obvious issues arising directly from its pivotal event—an act of violence that reshapes the already complicated relationship we see developing between Sara and Callie. To be sure, the playwright preaches a bit about anti-gay bias (though she’s been careful to construct an interestingly nebulous, not-necessarily-lesbian sexuality for her 20-something protagonists), and she goes near-disastrously overboard in a couple of scenes involving a manly-man detective (Doug Brown) whose blame-the-victim interrogation borders on the abusive.
But to see Stop Kiss merely—or even mostly—as a ham-fisted indictment of homophobia is to miss a good-size part of the point. Son seems to mean the play as a story of self-discovery, one that’s at least as interested in Callie’s finding a backbone as in her finding a new sort of bed partner or finding out firsthand about the evil that men do. The tentative affectional explorations, the comic dithering, the dark-in-the-park trauma, and the trials that come with recovering from it—all these the playwright deploys as mile markers on the road to a place where Callie can speak up for herself, take a stand in her own favor, and make the kind of fierce commitment to someone or something that she has seen—and been attracted to—in Sara.
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That said, Stop Kiss still falls a bit shy of milestone status itself. It is professionally crafted, yes, with staccato interjectional dialogue in the Mamet manner and scenes that interleave past and present in the fashion of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, among other artifacts of deliberately self-conscious recent structural experimentation. Humor is among the playwright’s gifts—both the set-’em-up/knock-’em-down kind, as evidenced by a Giuliani one-liner that should get its own rim shot, and the situational sort—and her dramaturgical arsenal includes a keen sense of the absurdities, large and small, of modern social intercourse. (“George and I are…friends,” says Callie. “Who sleep together. But date other people. Sometimes for long periods of time….Since we were 20.”)
And for the most part, Seehorn and Twyford negotiate the play’s course with the sort of confidence and craft Washington audiences have come to expect from them. Seehorn’s brittle comic style has never seemed more apt, and the play even gives her a few opportunities (though perhaps too few) to demonstrate her emotional range. And though Twyford, who can manage coltish beauty or gawky charm as needed, is badly served by Susan Chiang’s decision to dress her in the ungainly flats and hideous corduroy jumper of a total rube, the actress is good about finding her character’s intelligence and spirit. (She also gets to demonstrate, in an otherwise unevenly funny sequence, a pretty good boneless-drunk routine.)
But it’s an open question whether Son ever crosses the line that divides craft from art—and whether, aside from questions of its author’s skills, Stop Kiss has anything especially earth-shattering to say. It’s not shallow, by any stretch, and it’s certainly not the sort of play you can dismiss with a sniff—but neither, despite the best efforts of everyone at Woolly, does it ever become the sort of play that makes you catch your breath in wonder.
I’m willing to believe that Little John Nee is the sort of performer who could provoke a gasp or two—of delight, if nothing else, or perhaps of recognition. He comes across, in the Keegan Theatre’s presentation of The Derry Boat, as a big-hearted Irishman with a wide sentimental streak balanced by a healthy sense of irony. The essential agreeableness of that combination makes it all the sadder to see his one-man show, a chronicle of Irish loves and labors among the emigrant community in Glasgow, beached in the disagreeable Rosslyn Spectrum.
The hall’s deadly acoustics and less-than-intimate size smother a performance that, to judge by Nee’s seemingly boundless energy and sharp sense of timing, was probably a laugh riot in Galway, where he developed and first performed it. The cultural references that abound in the narrative—spun by one Shugie O’Donnell, who finds himself in a rural barn with a sputtering cell phone and a suitcase that’s supposed to be full of cash—provoked the occasional isolated guffaw from one or another of the eight or nine patrons who shared the 300-seat space last Saturday night; it’s easy to picture the concerted gales of laughter that might have greeted Shugie’s dousing of a wee cottage with a watering can had the auditorium been packed with an audience that knew a bit more about Donegal’s endlessly wet weather.
Punctuated, inevitably, by songs both lighthearted and lugubrious (including one about the famous steamer that gives the show its name), The Derry Boat could be an ingratiating sort of entertainment, given the chance to bounce its energies off an interested audience. Take a horde of Irish friends along and enjoy; otherwise, prepare for a strained evening. CP