Odysseus had it easy. He braved sirens, sea nymphs whose songs were so perilously alluring that, for safety’s sake, he had himself tied to the mast. But the wily Ithacan never had to cope with a hunky lovelorn Australian surfer; an overweight, nature-crazed soda-pop magnate; or an aging MGM movie star swigging liquor on the beach.
Those idiosyncratic characters issue their own siren calls, after a fashion, in “The History of Kisses,” a cluster of wry and quietly affecting interlinked stories, written and performed by David Cale. In this 90-minute one-man show making its world premiere at Studio Theatre, the actor and monologuist depicts ordinary men and women who experience erotic epiphanies and moments of personal insight thanks to chance encounters near, or on, the ocean.
Just like the sirens portion of “The Odyssey,” “The History of Kisses,” the fourth solo work Cale has performed at Studio, comes with its own soundtrack. The show’s appealingly vulnerable characters include Robert Grundy, a folk singer who has ensconced himself in a California motel to practice for a coming sea chantey festival. As Grundy, Cale strikes up a chantey every now and then, and the plangent tones and insistent rhythms complement a play whose dominant metaphor, the ocean, conjures up visions of danger, expansive possibility and longing.
Fueled by these motifs, “The History of Kisses” plays out on a lonely stretch of unkempt sand, punctuated by an easel and a concertina lying on a rock. (Luciana Stecconi designed the set.) Between rock and easel stands a wooden lifeguard chair, which is apt because the play’s hesitant, self-conscious protagonists are all in some way in need of rescue. That goes for the central character, James, an amused and bemused writer who’s attempting to knock out a story collection from temporary headquarters in a motel (he’s staying in the room adjoining Robert Grundy’s). Inspired and distracted by chanteys, memories and the amorous exploits of Craig, the Australian surfer at the motel’s front desk, James finds himself caught up in an unanticipated personal adventure.
Cale’s performance credits include “Radio Days” and other movies, roles in Broadway and off-Broadway plays, and writing lyrics for songs performed by Elvis Costello and Deborah Harry. Here he eschews costume changes, sticking with a single low-key outfit (black shirt, khakis, khaki moccasins) and distinguishing his characters by means of intonation, accent and body language. For instance, when the lanky performer sits, knees together, on the lifeguard chair, hands folded demurely on his lap, occasionally slicking a lock of (invisible) woman’s hair behind an ear, he’s Lisa, a gentle divorcee whose life changes after a serendipitous encounter on a Portuguese quay. When Cale wanders across the sand with a world-weary hunch and slight shuffle, he’s a grieving construction czar who just happens to run across Judy Garland on a beach. And when the performer’s voice plunges to a particularly low register, he’s the soda entrepreneur who yearns to be a park ranger.
No matter which figure Cale is inhabiting, there’s a wonderment in his face and voice and an openness to his presence that pull you into his stories, which become richer and more poignant as points of connection reveal themselves. Bittersweet timbres abound, but there are also some unrestrainedly funny moments, including a dream sequence that turns Craig into a sex-advice guru speaking in near-incomprehensible Aussie slang to Muzak-style underscoring.
Designer Andre Pluess helps flesh out the play’s fictional world — and its sense of lives brushing against one another — with sound effects that include lapping waves, purring boat motors and noises seeping through motel room walls. And Beverly Emmons’s lighting clarifies emotional and narrative segues, as well as (in one particularly endearing sequence) conjuring up an aquarium full of sea horses.
In the play’s climactic scene, Emmons’s lighting and Cale’s expressive face transform a moment of seaborne peril into an ecstatic spiritual revelation. After all, in “The History of Kisses,” the sea isn’t just a symbol of adventure and a catalyst for trysts: It’s also a source of baptism-like renewal.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Written, directed and performed by David Cale. Songs by David Cale. 90 minutes. Through July 3 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.