- Connecticut Critic
Diana Son’s bittersweet “Stop Kiss” was written and set in 1998. In the details, we notice how many things have changed. Payphones, for instance, are mentioned being used instead of their cellular counterparts. “NYPD Blue” is popular viewing on television and music is listened to on CD players. A radio station has enough dough to employ a full-time traffic reporter who broadcasts from an airborne helicopter. Now that I think of it, most of the college-aged cast who performed the play at Quinnipiac University were still babies in 1998. But when dealing with the bigger issues at play in “Stop Kiss,” it seems we haven’t come very far. Senseless violence is still perpetrated on city streets, individuals are still harassed due to their sexual orientation (even if homosexuality and bisexuality are much more mainstream and accepted) and those who get attacked are often misunderstood or slut-shamed. Many people still struggle to uncover their true identity. We are still making Rudy Giuliani jokes. Yes, “Stop Kiss” may be set 18 years ago, but at a time when bigotry seems to be on the rise, when we have a presidential candidate who uses obscene language to refer to the female anatomy (a certain term, coincidentally, used by the attacker in this play), it can’t help but feel incredibly timely.
If Son were telling a fluffier story in a more conventional, linear way, you might say “Stop Kiss” begins with a meet-cute. When Sara, a third grade teacher, moves to New York City from her hometown of St. Louis she needs someone to cat-sit. Enter Callie, a friend-of-a-friend who agrees to do the job. It’s clear from the start that the two will become fast friends. Callie is quirky and a little prickly around the edges; Sara is sweet and smart but slightly green when it comes to big city living. They even each other out perfectly. Hangouts become more regular as the two explore New York together and dish on their non-existent love lives over glasses of red wine (Sara has a kind but needy ex back in Missouri, Callie a stale friends-with-benefits relationships that’s a holdover from her college days). But as their relationship grows, it becomes clearer that a new kind of chemistry may be forming.
Flash forward a month or so later. Sara is in a coma at a nearby hospital, Callie has a few cracked ribs but is miraculously fine after a violent homophobe harassed and attacked them for being lesbians in a West Village park late one Friday night. But what were Sara and Callie doing in that park? And how does the attack force Callie to come to terms with previously withheld feelings? Those questions will become the basis of the play, which ping-pongs back and forth between scenes pre-and-post assault.
It’s a gimmick, perhaps, but one that is displayed beautifully. Like the time-bending narrative of “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” it allows us to see simple moments with perspective and keeps “Stop Kiss” from feeling melodramatic or repetitive. Alternating with the increasingly dark storyline are scenes depicting the start of the girls’ friendship that are bright and jokey, perhaps a little too much so. The humor is needed, but Callie sometimes speaks in comical quips that seem better suited for Grace Adler or any number of late-‘90s sitcom characters.
When placed alongside the beautifully written somber sections, some emotional whiplash can occur, although perhaps that’s what Son wanted. It’s a bit like that Regina Spektor lyric, isn’t it? “You laugh until you cry, you cry until you laugh and everyone must breathe until their dying breath.”
I also question why Son chose to reveal a crucial bit of information very early on in the narrative. The show isn’t a police procedural – it isn’t interested in the specifics of the attack as much as the psychological effect it has – but with no real mysteries after the first thirty minutes and given its episodic structure, “Stop Kiss” sometimes struggles to find momentum in the show’s second half. Were it not for a terrifically talented cast and Drew Scott’s steady, nuanced direction, I fear “Stop Kiss” could feel bloated or meandering, which was not the case for this production.
As George and Peter, the girls’ ex-boyfriends, Liam Richards and Ryan Sheehan did very solid work believably inhabiting characters that could have easily been one-note while Connor Whiteley, Jamie Ackerman and Elizabeth Miller helped flesh out the world of “Stop Kiss” as a cop, an eyewitness and a nurse. The true success, though, of this play lies directly with the actresses playing Callie and Sara. Luckily, director Scott found two tremendously talented and likable leads in Nicolette Fino and Jenna Gallagher who carried the show’s hefty emotional weight with ease. Junior Fino strained just a bit too hard for laughs in the first few scenes but settled down exquisitely into a detailed and heartfelt portrayal of Callie while, as Sara, sophomore Gallagher gave an extremely comfortable and lived-in performance. Their chemistry together was easy and palpably felt from the audience, as illustrated by the show’s two best scenes. In the first, a tipsy Sara decides to spend the night on Callie’s couch, a seemingly normal situation made momentously awkward by the pair’s burgeoning attraction.
In the second, Callie painstakingly dresses a wheelchair-bound and non-verbal Sara for the first time. Those scenes, which both featured long, nearly silent stretches, not just showed off the pair’s committed partnership but displayed the individual actresses’ ability to make smart physical choices which spoke volumes. Notice how Fino’s expressive eyes kept darting over to her friend next to her in bed or how Gallagher’s feet hung limply over the wheelchair footrests.
Those scenes also illustrate another thread that ran through Scott’s “Stop Kiss.” During the course of the play, we see a fair amount of bare flesh. The girls’ feet sticking out from the pullout sofa bed, Sara’s bare back and legs spilling over her wheelchair, Callie trying on different outfits in a flesh-colored bra. This sense of voyeurism is heightened by the fact that most costume changes are done onstage. We only see one moment of true intimacy in the play, though, and it doesn’t involve nudity or naughtiness. It’s an act that is about attraction more than sex, the closeness of human connection more than lust, giving into one’s instincts rather than doing what feels safest. It’s an act that is oh so simple and commonplace, but here, after two hours of beautiful build-up, it felt just as satisfying and vulnerable as anything they could have done under the covers.
“Stop Kiss” ran October 13-16 at Quinnipiac University. For more information on Quinnipiac University’s Theater Program, visit www.facebook.com/QUTheater.