Stop Kiss (Underground Productions)
Schonell Cinema and Live Theatre
May 17 – 20
Diana Son’s Off-Broadway hit “Stop Kiss” begins in the enviable Manhattan apartment of Callie (superbly played by Didi Leslie), a radio traffic reporter who agrees to look after the cat of Sara (Adrienne McManus), who has just arrived from St. Louis on a fellowship that has her teaching at a public school in the Bronx. Although they are very different characters, there’s an immediate rapport and a strong attraction that allows their acquaintance to morph into more. It is new territory for both; Sara left a long-time boyfriend back home and Callie has a long-term casual arraignment with a male friend, and in the hands of Underground Productions, it unfolds as a thoroughly engaging, effortlessly-updated story thanks to chemistry between the two leads and the strengths of their respective performances.
Watching the relationship of the two main characters develop is a real treat. Under the direction of Matthew Ambrose and Keya Makar, both characters are fully realised and absolutely endearing. Indeed, their relationship is portrayed in a lovely manner, full of small and touching, tender moments of deepening connection that often say so much more than the conversation that is occurring around them. As Callie, Leslie is excellent and there is a natural rhythm to her scenes with McManus as Sara. Alex Budden is also notable in his performance as Callie’s friend-with-benefits George, especially in delivery of many of the show’s funniest lines.
But “Stop Kiss” is more than just a well-written love story and, as audiences, we know this from the beginning as it alternates between scenes in the past when Callie and Sara first meet and scenes in the present that showcase an investigation into a gay-bashing incident of the pair (by an attacker we never meet) and time in the hospital focussed on Sara’s recovery. Even knowing what happens, we are engaged in their endearing awkward flirtation and the brutal reality of the aftermath of their admission of feelings, because the attack is just one incident and their relationship is about so much more than just this one moment.
The inventive structure and the reporting rather than dramatisation of the horrific attack (eventuating after the kiss of the title), does not come without a price. Lengthy scene transitions lag the run-time to a two hour endurance. There are some problems too with articulation and voice projection, especially from Sophie Edwards, as an interrogating police detective, but also sometimes from others in competition with the New York City soundscape or over the soundtrack of background music.
“Stop Kiss” is funny, romantic and rewarding in its transcendence of the plot’s specifics for engagement of broader themes. It is quite enigmatic even in its juxtaposition of a very modern story with more traditional tale of tenderly-observed love, and it is easy to appreciate its selection as part of Underground Production’s 2017 season, especially given the company’s history of sharing edgy, interesting shows that have experienced considerable success overseas.