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Kiss Me on the Mouth

nytheatre.com review by Dan Kitrosser
November 6, 2009

"I've always felt so close to Mary," Amy says, referring to that Holy Mother who conceived immaculately and was so chaste that her nickname is "The Virgin." And boy, in the world of Melanie Angelina Maras's Kiss Me On The Mouth, being a virgin doesn't sound half bad. In this powerfully heartfelt yet uneven play by first-timer Maras, sex is emotional quicksand and once you've stepped in it, resisting it will only kill you faster.

At the start of the play, Amy has taken her best friend Christina to church, where Amy tells Christina she has received her calling and is going to become a nun. Frustrated with the loss of her friend to the Order, Christina stands up and her appearance says it all: red lips, black bustier, fishnets everywhere. This gal is a vixen, non-sinners be damned! Christina demands one night of debauchery from her friend before she dons the habit and Amy reluctantly accepts. And so the two meet up at a club in the Meat Packing District, where Christina winds up with an artist she met at a gallery named Gabriel Quinn, and Amy winds up with a sexy-suave-seducer named Andre who is half-Brazilian, half-Italian, and all lover. And so Amy has shuffled off her moral coil with Andre, and in a surprise turn, the socialite Christina has started to seriously date, and love, Gabriel, a somewhat starving artist.

While the play is small and there are only four characters, the unquestionable focus is on the women and these ladies' roles are written with honesty, pathos, and depth. As the hopeless romantic Amy, Megan Hart gives an earnest performance, and as her character gets swept away by romance, you feel for her but never pity her. It's a delicate balance to make a depressive character like Amy not seem pathetic, but actress Hart and writer Maras hit the perfect notes, as displayed in a beautiful montage of Amy on the phone leaving messages for Andre: she cries, talks to herself, says nothing, all with poignancy and dignity. As Christina, the aforementioned vixen, Aubyn Philabaum starts off a little over the top, which may have more to do with the lines she is meant to deliver, but certainly as the character begins to break down and sees the ramifications of her callousness on Amy, her only friend, Philabaum is truly radiant. With great care, Maras has taken a stock character of the Upper East Snider and given her real depth. Though they are best friends, Amy and Christina have a troubled history that bubbles to the top in this play, and due to both the acting and the writing, you are really rooting for them to come together.

What is troublesome about this play is that half of its characters have no real depth or consistency; and they are the men. As Gabriel, the tortured artist and the object of Christina's affection, Ken Matthews is certainly believable, but his character arc makes no sense. In the first half of the play he's worried Christina is going to hurt him and in the second half, he tells her he can never handle commitment. It just doesn't add up and the dialogue fails to connect the dots. Even worse is the character of Andre, Amy's Don Juan, who is flatly written and played like a cartoon by Troy Lococo, whose accent is horribly inconsistent. While Maras's point may be that men, and by extension, romance, are inherently flawed and inconsistent, exclusively giving depth to the women robs the play of its reality.

This is where a good director really should have stepped in and pushed the writer to her limits. Unfortunately, Stephen Adly Guirgis has not done so. While as a playwright he sports a host of critical successes mining the souls of troubled men, here he leaves them be. And it shows. But it's not just scene work where Guirgis fails. It's in the overall shaping and movement of the show. The play takes you many places—to church, an art gallery, Crown Heights, a yacht, and all housed by Lauren Helpern's classy minimalist set of four white sliding panels and a few purple benches and Melissa Mizell's spot-on lighting design. It's the kind of minimalism that reminds you how much can be done with so little. And so then why are there are a gazillion props, why couldn't the actors pantomime? I loved Dana Covarrubias's costumes, but why are they changing costume every scene? Maras's script basically goes back and forth between two couples, the play could zoom by. But between costume changes and getting props off the stage that we didn't need in the first place, the play starts to lag. And then there is Dina Alexander's obtrusive sound design which hovers over every scene, to the point where sometimes you couldn't hear what the actors were saying. At one point Gabriel is blindfolded and taken on a yacht. His surprise that he is on a yacht is totally unbelievable because of (a) how loud the seagulls are and (b) when you are walking on a boat, you feel it, it's on water. All this muddled direction—minimalist sets with maximum costumes and props, deeply drawn women with shallowly written men, no clarity as to where we are—truly hinders the play and one wonders how much further Maras's words could have traveled if they were helmed by a different director.

Still, this playwright has much promise and this play has a sincerity that is hard to find. In our postmodern world where snarkiness is king and sexual promiscuity is dogma, Maras bravely shows her misgivings in loving the sin, by truly loving her sinners.