Plays rarely pull the rug out from under audiences as successfully as Guillermo Calderón’s “Kiss” is managing the trick at Woolly Mammoth. The funny, searingly topical show comes on like a campy melodrama as American actors stage a soap opera script they found online. It’s by a Syrian writer who they think is hiding underground in the Middle East.
They’re mostly right, but what they don’t know drives a lot of the surprises in “Kiss,” which is easily one of the most urgent and gripping performances of the new theater season. Staged in the ciderblock-walled rehearsal hall downstairs at Woolly, the show skips along as an escapist comic lark but eventually erupts as a full-throated roar about one of the most troubled spots on Earth.
The twists are key to the performance, so it’s best not to give too much away. Even so, the furtive nature of the acting cues you to listen closely to what’s happening between the fevered lines as two couples gather to watch a favorite soap opera. Also tipping you off to the multilayered action to come is the staging by Yury Urnov, which only uses the front half of the hall for much of the performance. Having seen how Urnov amplified David Adjmi’s “Marie Antoinette” on Woolly’s main stage with a set that grew bigger and grimmer by degrees, you feel sure that before the show is over this entire room, too, will be put to dynamic use.
Yet you snicker along through the early going as the two couples get their romantic alliances tangled. Youssif, played with absurd levels of bravado by Joe Mallon, declares his love for Hadeel (Shannon Dorsey, in tormented mode). But Youssif’s friend Ahmed (an ultra-serious Tim Getman) is about to propose to Hadeel. Can Youssif really betray his pal?
And what about Youssif’s lover, Bana? Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey gets some of the most over-the-top passages of this soapy, pulpy saga as the late-arriving Bana, who portentously declares she was just kissed by someone else. Yet amid all the high jinks and cross-examinations – played with a precise degree of emotional sensationalism by the ensemble – you find yourself picking up hints that feel abnormally large about loyalties and betrayals.
Well, guess what? The cast has arranged a Skype talkback with the author, and the hilarity continues as the super-serious actors pose their questions. Yet the script deliberately, intriguingly throws you off-balance: Calderon raises the stakes as the woman on the other end of the Internet (Lelia TahaBurt), speaking through an interpreter (Ahmad Kamal), explains what watching soap operas really means to people in her circumstances. Her eyes darting around whatever darkened room she’s hiding in, she also begins to describe the difficulties of life on the ground – to say nothing of art – in Syria.
There is more up Calderón’sInternet and much more for Urnov and scenic and costume designer Misha Kachman to show us. Suffice it to say that things get real – or at least a lot more real – via Alexandra Kelly Coburn’s newsy projections and acting that escalates into an almost anarchic key. It catapults toward fury, and the mood rubs off, in part because we’re seeing it in Washington as a presidential campaign tails off into its own absurd rings of overheated subplots. The driving quest of “Kiss” to understand and deal with the facts of a nation gripped by chaos and racking violence implicitly and effectively calls out the reckless negligence of our own pulpy, soapy, unfathomably distracted politics. Watching the play is like being slapped awake.
Kiss by Guillermo Calderón. Directed by Yury Urnov. Lights, Max Doolittle; sound design, James Bigbee Garver. About 90 minutes. Through Nov. 6 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Tickets $35-$79, Subject to change. Call 202-393-3939 or visit woollymammoth.net.