The delicacy and urgency of a crush is incredibly difficult to capture onstage, but in its joint production between Pride Arts Center and The Arc Theatre, “Stop Kiss” perfectly demonstrates how hard it can be to even stand near the one you love, especially if it is your best girlfriend, and you have never thought of yourself as queer. While the late nineties script suffers a bit from its vagueness about labels and connections, the direction and acting and intimacy work in this production makes it a must see.
Callie (Flavia Pallozzi) is a seasoned New Yorker homing Midwesterner Sara’s (Kylie Anderson) cat. The two strike up a friendship, as Callie takes Sara around her new neighborhood and reluctantly introduces Sara to her friend and sometimes boyfriend George (Shane Novoa Rhoades). Fast forward to a much less idyllic time, where Callie is speaking with a police detective (Joe Faifer), who is interrogating her about the attack she and Sara experienced from a strange man at four am in a park; they were rescued by bystander Mrs. Winsley (Sheila Landahl), but both are hurt and emotionally damaged. The play switches between scenes of flirting and unspoken feeling and frightening confrontations about Callie’s responsibility for the attack and her relationship with Sara. When Sara’s ex Peter (also Faifer) arrives at the hospital to help move Sara home to her parents, Callie must decide what she is willing to claim in order to be with Sara.
Son’s script is at once light and dark, both tense and warm. The earlier timeline, with Callie and Sara getting to know each other, often feels sitcom-esque in its witty wordplay and also its lack of forward momentum. The women are at a standstill with each other, trapped in 1998, and unable to fully express the changes they are experiencing emotionally. The present day scenes, a swirl of confusion surrounding the hate crime they experienced, have higher stakes and a stronger pull. And the contrast between the two doesn’t move the story forward as sharply as Son believes. There are a ton of short scenes, forcing actors and technicians into prolonged scenic changes that eat up the pacing and momentum of the script.
In another, quieter way, Son’s script loses some impact in the women lacking words to express themselves. By rarely addressing labels, or what will change about their lives, the play very much lives in a narrative where claiming of power is a negotiation, and she does not seem to want to interrogate what these women will become together. The in and out space Callie occupies creates an identity crisis, eloquently captured in a monologue where she begs a comatose Sara to tell her who she is, but Son is less interested in outcomes and more invested in the choice to begin something, and that may be frustrated to watch in 2020.
Director Kanomé Jones brings teasing, gentle performances out of the leads. Pallozzi as Callie seems less hesitant due to rut-sticking, and more scared out of her mind to be who she is. Anderson’s Sara is a breath of fresh air, bringing a warmth and incisiveness that never slides into the naivety that everyone presumes of her. Shane Novoa Rhoades is a charming and loyal presence, and Faifer excels at being pushy in the name of protecting citizens or protecting Sara. And Gaby Labotka’s intimacy work shines at highlighting both how well these women know each other, but what a large bridge in intimacy they still have to cross.
This production is a delicate balancing act. The quiet nature of its love story does not announce political ambition or timelessness, perhaps. But it does speak to how hard it can be to share your whole self with another person, to change fundamentally in order to be your best self. And that’s something worth witnessing onstage.
DICE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Love blooms but lovers search for words to express love.
Show: “Stop Kiss”
Company: Pride Films and Plays in a co-production with The Arc Theatre
Venue: The Buena, Pride Arts Center (4147 N Broadway)