Love at Midlife
Kissing, a brand-new play now making its world premiere at the New Theatre in Coral Gables, is so precious it ought to trigger your gag reflex. It doesn't. It bypasses the alimentary canal altogether and burrows straight to the heart. Cynics and hipsters might feel annoyed, but they shouldn't. Kissing was written for them.
One may say this even though Kissing is about a man in the throes of a stereotypical midlife crisis, splashing around the fountains in Central Park while falling sweetly, boyishly in love with a much younger co-worker named Tess. One may say this even though this gentleman repeatedly makes straight-faced, un-ironic references to love and beauty and the sweet innocence of childhood, and to the sudden rekindling of his passion and the reawakening of his soul (most times he sounds like Howard Beale right in the middle of Network, when he claims to be "imbued with some special spirit"). Even though he tells his beloved about seeing a "little light" inside of her, almost extinguished, which he desperately wants to save, tend, and nurture. In other words, one may say this is touching and moving even though Kissing is, let's face it, kind of corny.
But it's a good corny. Playwright Robert Caisley writes like Dave Eggers, and I wouldn't be surprised if Caisley based his protagonist, Sam, on Eggers's idealized version of himself in his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Sam is given to the same absurd flights of poetic whimsy and has a similar penchant for seeing his outwardly pedestrian life in epic, heroic terms (he works in insurance). A character named Andrew, Sam's rival for the heart of young Tess, even looks like Eggers: bushy-haired, shaggy-faced, fashionably appointed in a short-sleeved shirt, vest, and tie, carrying a backpack with him everywhere and perpetually sucking on a lollipop.
All of Kissing takes place in Central Park, and onstage it plays out like this: Andrew, Tess, Sam, and Sam's wife Helen all drift on and off the stage, meeting up with one another and occasionally delivering monologues. At first, all the action appears to take place on the same day, but then you're not so sure. Tess and Sam apparently break up, and then the action switches to Andrew or Helen or both, and then Sam is back from frolicking in the fountain once more and Tess and Sam are perfectly lovey-dovey. They have a grand time, until Tess is overwhelmed by insecurity, or by the intensity of Sam's newfound lust for life, and she'll deliver some horrible dis (the nastiest is when she calls him a "frightened old vampire who wants to kiss me so he can suck out a little more of my youth") and their relationship decomposes anew. Like Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, Tess and Sam seem to have come unstuck in time.
For a simple play, Kissing is packed with a great many eccentricities — weird parallels, synchronicities, sudden eruptions of weirdness. Good writing, in other words. Check out the way both Sam and Helen hark back to Africa for explanations of their sexual personae: Sam believes himself related to the horny, friendly primates known as bonobos, while Helen thinks wistfully of a tribe of Africans who believe kissing is silly. She also meditates with disgust on the mating habits of lobsters, which pee on each other to get their partners in the mood, and recalls that her first adolescent kissing partner's tongue darted in and out of her mouth like the tongue of an adder. As you might guess, she is a frigid sort of lady, and not so different from the young usurper who has so entranced her husband — she is, perhaps, just in a more advanced stage of detachment from the imperatives of the mind, body, and soul. The men, too, are quite alike: big dreamers with big hard-ons. In a sexually egalitarian universe, you imagine they might save themselves the trouble of defrosting these fragile females and fall in love with each other.
Even though the characters themselves exist in some kind of emotional limbo, running into the same traps over and over and never making any lasting breakthroughs, the dialogue they share makes up for it with a wild, almost surreal dynamism. Apropos of nothing, it contains lobsters, adders, bonobos, African tribes, Jacques Cousteau, fatal accidents involving hot-air balloons, dancing, drowning, and Thanksgiving dinners in the homes of total strangers. Only Kyle A. Thomas, who plays Andrew with a mania, has any trouble translating these quick turns into the cadences of ordinary speech. But even this deficiency is slight. Kissing is uncannily well acted, and Kyle A. Thomas, Larry Buzzeo (who plays Sam), and Jessa Thomas (who plays Tess) will come out of this thing with their SoFla theater cred deeply enhanced. Barbara Sloan (who plays Helen) delivers her best performance in several seasons: Gone is the shark-like grin and general aura of mean-spiritedness that has categorized her recent performances. Here she is so frail and so desperately lonesome, with her hands glued to her lap and her eyes glued to her shoes, that it seems the tiniest touch will make her crumble to dust. She is literally unrecognizable in the part — I had to check my program to make sure it was Sloan and not some other actress with a vague facial resemblance.
Kissing is not a perfect show. Caisley's dialogue occasionally overreaches and becomes too self-consciously poetic to work as believable drama. The meandering interactions between Sam and Tess can get tiresome and, if you're not hip to the weird time traveling they appear to be doing, confusing. But this is a world premiere. Give it another minor edit, and Kissing could at least be perfectly disarming: a show that overwhelms your defenses with sweetness, successfully wages war against whatever cynicism you bring to the theater, and makes you glad for the defeat.
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