In San Francisco Playhouse’s invigorating “Stage Kiss,” Carrie Paff and Gabriel Marin play actors and former exes who are reunited when they get cast together in a new production. (Courtesy Jessica Palopoli)

‘Stage Kiss’ a charming valentine to theater

In “Stage Kiss,” a kiss is more — much more — than just a kiss.

Sarah Ruhl’s giddy comedy, making its regional premiere at San Francisco Playhouse, brings together two actors whose former love affair ended disastrously. They meet in a new production of a bad 1930s romance, playing – what else? – former lovers who fall in love all over again.

At the first rehearsal, She (Carrie Paff) and He (Gabriel Marin) are horrified at the thought of having to spend time in the same room, let alone get physical. But in this delightful mashup of romantic comedy and backstage farce, they have no choice but to kiss – repeatedly – until their old passion is rekindled.

Unfortunately, She’s now married to a banker, and He’s in a relationship with a schoolteacher. But their reunion takes them back to a heady past when life was fun, sex was easy, and their ambition seemed limitless.

Ruhl, who’s earned a huge Bay Area following — this year alone has seen productions of “Eurydice” (at Shotgun Players) and “The Oldest Boy” (Marin Theatre Co.) — knows well the kinds of risks actors take every time they bare their emotional souls. As her characters move from love to lust, the line between art and artifice is increasingly blurred.

Along the way, Ruhl skewers hoary theatrical conventions, outsize egos, show tunes, false exits and bad kissers (She is horrified when she has to kiss Kevin the understudy, whose open-mouth technique leaves a lot to be desired – it’s “like he’s trying to eat me,” she says) – and steers the action from opening night to He’s grubby apartment and a second play-within-the-play, this one written by their Director (a wonderfully quirky Mark Anderson Phillips.)

It’s a lot to keep in motion, and director Susi Damilano and her design team – Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott (sets), Robert Hand (lighting), Theodore J.H. Hulsker (sound), and Brooke Jennings (costumes) – manage it at a crisp pace.

Paff’s high-strung She dominates the cast from that first scene; Marin blends swagger and an apt note of uncertainty in his role as her leading man.

Phillips is ideal as the director with writing aspirations, and Allen Darby gets big laughs as Kevin.

Michael Gene Sullivan, as She’s stalwart husband, Taylor Iman Jones as her no-nonsense daughter, as well as Millicent DeBenedet, as He’s perky girlfriend, make excellent contributions.

Unlike most backstage comedies, the play gets funnier as it goes. But Ruhl clearly believes in theater magic, and “Stage Kiss” doesn’t end until it touches the heart. The fantasy world of theater, she suggests, may not be real. But it sure can make you happy.

REVIEW
Stage Kiss
Where: San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. most Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. most Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Jan. 9
Tickets: $20 to $120
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org

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