Stage: Wednesday, October 05, 2005
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Justin Flowers and Dana Schultes star in the stateside premiere of ‘Kiss Me Like You Mean It,’ at Stage West.
Kiss Me Like You Mean It
Thru Oct 9 at Stage West, 1300 Gendy St, FW. 817-STG-WEST.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Going Down Swingin’

That sex seems to be the most vital part of love helps and hinders Stage West’s latest production.

By JIMMY FOWLER

The current production at Stage West reveals a big, sloppy secret that threatens to shake our youth-obsessed culture to its very foundation: Old people have sex, and they enjoy it, too. “Old” in this case means the septuagenarian British married couple in the stateside premiere of Kiss Me Like You Mean It. These folks dance in their underwear for each other’s pleasure, purchase curry-flavored condoms (apparently, such a thing is manufactured in England) to quite literally “spice up” their relationship, and exult in the sensations that oral sex can produce. That this comes across as both shocking and oddly comforting is a measure of America’s uneasy relationship with finite time: Once the inevitable signs of decay begin to show on one celebrity hottie, he or she gets shelved, and the next tasty twentysomething is served up to distract folks from the Big Deadline that looms ever nearer.

Indeed, despite its celebration of lust as a driving force in life, Kiss Me veers into downright morbid territory. British playwright Chris Chibnall’s sometimes perverse romantic comedy traces the intimate connection between beginnings and endings, how difficult both are to maneuver through in life but how utterly necessary it is that they be honored and acknowledged. Otherwise, people flounder in a state of irresolution while the precious minutes keep ticking away. One character in the play refers to being aware of the myriad “pivotal moments” that present themselves constantly but are easily missed beneath the mundane veil of just getting through the day.

It’s easy to see why director Jim Covault and company were attracted to this script: Despite its indefatigably sentimental heart, it hews toward a bracingly sober view of impermanence and the troubles kicked up when people refuse to accept it. In the end, though, Kiss Me winds up being more admirable than enjoyable, if only because the playwright can’t effectively link his dramatically disparate two acts.

The play begins at 3 a.m. in the backyard garden of a Manchester apartment house. A boozy bacchanal thrown by an unseen host is beginning to wind down, and two disconsolate strangers have taken refuge outside for the comical combination of fresh air and a cigarette. Both Tony (Justin Flowers) and Ruth (Dana Schultes) are in their 20s and stuck in relationships that neither has the guts to get out of. During their increasingly serious first conversation, Tony reveals that he’d been diagnosed with testicular cancer and now, after the operation, “I walk a bit lighter on one side.” He jokes about the cherished notion that cancer survivors can use their diagnosis to help peel away the layers of pointless fear that keep so many from making changes in their lives. After his experience, he says, he’s still a coward, “but now I beat myself up about it.” Ruth, meanwhile, is glued to her big, strapping, fatally dull rugby player of a fiancé and the philosophy that she “could’ve done worse.”

Their immediate if tense attraction to each other is interrupted by a smaller but wilder orgy-of-two in the apartment upstairs: The aforementioned seniors Edie (Judy Keith) and Don (Jerry Russell) cavort shamelessly in front of their windows, to the amused horror of Tony and Ruth. Not long after, the elders move to the backyard for what appears to be an impetuous act of nocturnal gardening. As they transfer their houseplants out of pots and into the earth, each offers predictable advice to the youngsters about not bypassing what could become a great, lifelong love. Edie and Don themselves have been together five decades.

But that unpotting of the plants turns out to portend something more drastic. Consider this a spoiler alert for folks who intend to catch Kiss Me and want to be surprised by a jarring second-act twist that had audience members whispering to one another during the show: Edie and Don, it turns out, are tidying up the details of their lives to complete a suicide pact at dawn. He’s been diagnosed with brain cancer, neither wants him to suffer through a protracted decline, and she can’t imagine living without him. Tony and Ruth get rather too conveniently drawn into — and then just as tidily removed from — the old couple’s plans.

The show travels a considerable distance on the enthusiastic, unaffected vim of its actor quartet. Justin Flowers and Dana Schultes have the unique ability to play leads without crowding out the impact of the words they speak — they are something of a playwright’s dream. Jerry Russell and Judy Keith deliver their sexualized seventysomethings without resorting to the cutesy-spunky self-consciousness that the late stage veteran Ruth Gordon patented during the winter years of her film career. Keith in particular is marvelous at negotiating her way through some of the tricky, if not far-fetched, emotional hairpins Edie must take in the second act.

But Kiss Me ultimately feels rather naive. That well-worn biblical truism that “this too shall pass” is an essential bit of wisdom for sane and secure living, but it apparently doesn’t extend to the erotic passion in Edie and Don’s marriage. Horniness, for most people, is not an inexhaustible well that’s accessible right up to the moment they take their final breaths, least of all in a 50-year monogamous relationship. Curiously, this is one bald reality that Kiss Me Like You Mean It can’t seem to accept. The sweet but drab likelihood that Edie and Don would be affectionate best friends at the end of their lives cuts against the playwright’s ironically immature view of love as one big fuckfest. Stage West’s production never quite overcomes this hurdle. Even while the show espouses some startlingly adult truths, it would rather feel you up than hold your hand.


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