Under Lee Mikeska Gardner's direction, "Stop Kiss" is wonderfully acted by Rhea Seehorn and Holly Twyford as two straight women who unexpectedly find themselves falling in love. With horrible consequences, of course, this being a Woolly Mammoth production and the world being the cruel, insensitive place it is.
It's not giving anything away to preview the play's disaster: As the lights rise, a hospital bed accompanied by IV drip bags is set up stage right. Obviously, someone has to end up in it. That turns out to be Sara (Twyford). A saintly young woman from St. Louis who teaches inner-city public school kids who of course just adore her, she also brings freedom to the directionless Callie (Seehorn)--freedom, and possibly, for the first time, love. Not five minutes into the play, we move into the future and see how this burgeoning love will come to be mutilated.
Playwright Diana Son is on the staff of "The West Wing," one of the most richly written current TV series, so she knows how to entertain. And thank Heaven. If this play weren't funny, it would be unbearable. Not because of the misfortune that befalls the heroines but because of the script's manipulative special pleading.
"Stop Kiss" is another play about gay persecution that gives the impression, probably inadvertently, that the reason we should care whether the characters are beaten up is not because their civil and human rights are being violated but because nasty things are happening to such darn nice people. The implication of this theatrical parade of virtuous victims is that if the gay people were jerks, they wouldn't merit any special concern. They certainly wouldn't merit the attentions of a playwright with a point to make.
Callie and Sara are not only witty, gorgeous, honest and socially aware, they're not even really gay. Sara has an ex (Ian LeValley in a fine, somber performance), and Callie has a sort of bed-mate/friend (ingratiating Jeorge Watson). Plus they never actually do anything so definitely sexual as go to bed together. No, a homophobe spots and punishes them on their very first kiss, the poor innocent lambs.
Maybe their precious innocence is why they're in a Manhattan park at 4:30 in the morning--though even pointing this out, the script makes clear, is "blaming the victim." It's difficult to figure out exactly what social problem the play is attacking. The fact that New York parks aren't safe at night? Violence against gays? Violence against women? Callie and Sara probably would have been attacked in that park at 4:30 a.m. whether they'd kissed or not. For that matter, either one of them could have been attacked in a shopping mall parking lot. The case that seems to have inspired the play's description of Sara's battering involved a woman walking through Central Park in the middle of the day, not doing anything in particular except being female--a condition at which her attacker apparently took offense.
If it weren't for the gay-bashing, "Stop Kiss" would be a charming lightweight comedy about two previously heterosexual women discovering they're falling in love. The scenes in which this slowly and awkwardly dawns on them are quite funny and well observed. And Son has a way with one-liners. Of course, at the same time she's writing these comic lines she's holding the specter of that forthcoming beating over our heads--encouraging us to laugh but making sure we feel bad if we do. This isn't devastating social criticism and it isn't an example of life's ambiguity. It's just a setup.
Stop Kiss, by Diana Son. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Set, Tony Cisek; lighting, Lisa Ogonowski; sound, Hana Sellers; costumes, Susan Chiang; props, Jennifer Peterson. Assistant director, Lynnie Raybuck. With Doug Brown, Desiree Marie. At Woolly Mammoth Theatre through Feb. 13. Call ProTix at 703-218-6500.
CAPTION: Jeorge Watson and Rhea Seehorn in Diana Son's "Stop Kiss," at Woolly Mammoth.