Two women, strangers, meet: one a decade-long New York resident and helicopter-riding TV traffic anchor whose trepidation and self-doubt have led her, blindly and quietly, into an existential dead end; the other a lively, adventurous soul imported from St. Louis to teach public-school third-graders in the festering heart of the Bronx. Both women have been recently relieved of their mild, habitual relationships with unstunning men. They chat, uncomfortably at first. In no time, however, each realizes an affinity for the other, a soulful engagement that—by the ineluctable dynamics of human relationships—snowballs into a burning, if perpetually unrequited, attraction. Finally, finally, after a long night of dancing around each other at a West Village gay bar, they go to a park and kiss. Once, and then passionately. A man walks up, noticeably hostile. Cut to the hospital: The teacher lies in a coma, and the journalist, still terrified of her own desires, is stuck spinning in place like a grounded chopper.
Stop Kiss Seattle Public Theater, 7312 W. Greenlake Dr. N., 524-1300, www.seattlepublictheater.org. $14–$24. 7:30 p.m. Thurs.–Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends April 8.
Contact that. Identify with that. Feel that, and ask yourself: Do we really need another gay-bashing morality play?
The answer is yes and no. Yes, because, to crib from Eugene Debs, while people still get beat shitless for the sexuality and attendant way of life they neither can nor should forgo, this world will never be free of its ugly and retrograde homophobia. And no, because Stop Kiss, a play by Diana Son currently onstage at Seattle Public Theater under Carol Roscoe's direction, is much more than a cautionary tale about the brutal and universal injustice of gay bashing. To be sure, on one level Son's play functions as an engaging, propulsively plotted thriller, full of insight into and indignation at the often violent plight of gay couples—in fact, with its kaleidoscopic time-flips and cliff-hanging segues, the play is even structured as something of a pulp crime drama, a postmodern gay noir full of time-tested devices. It is as a love story, however, that Stop Kiss is most gripping, offering an honest and rather beautiful portrait of new, if highly imperiled, love.
A great portion of the show's success can be credited to the two leads, Melissa Brown and Rebecca Olson. Brown plays Sara, the wide-eyed but straight-talking schoolteacher, a woman much more deeply wise and soulful than her somewhat childlike aura would seem to indicate. And as Callie, the unlikely telejournalist (she got her job, for which she is entirely unqualified, from a boyfriend's uncle), Olson is a dynamo—she perfectly embodies the anxiety-as-energy of the single woman in Manhattan. Together, these fine actors create a rare kind of shuffle and spark, an intimacy-in-waiting no less excruciating for being utterly inevitable. From their opening scene together to their final moment onstage, Olson and Brown delineate in fine psychological detail the warp and woof of falling in love—the uncertainty and shyness, the excitement and flirtation, the frustration and blighted expectation, the whole delicious, painful waltz. Their dynamic is a joy to behold.
The small supporting cast does a good job of, well, supporting the two leads without getting in the way of the fireworks. Theater Schmeater veteran Ray Tagavilla has a surprisingly touching comic turn as Callie's on-again, off-again fuck-friend of 10 years, and Trick Danneker is also strong as Sara's St. Louis boyfriend. In the very small but crucial role of Sara's hospital nurse is Serin Ngai, and J.P. Giuliotti (Detective Cole) and Wendy Woolery (the attack witness, Mrs. Winsley) round out this fine cast.
The production's whiplash pacing and (probably as a consequence) minor technical glitches—mostly concerning scene and costume changes and too much backstage noise—hardly diminish the power of Son's writing and what Olson and Brown do with it. A few unexpected narrative twists, along with a red herring of a mystery, work well to foil audience expectations, and the play ends on a moment of suspense, leaving many questions unanswered. That the final moment could be interpreted as either a fillip of cynicism or a gesture of hope speaks to the dangerous emotions that course through the heart of Son's play—emotions that ask: Dare we, in a world this bad? Neither tragic nor particularly political, Stop Kiss answers this question with a resounding yes and no.