Featured through the month in the mainstage series is Neil Simon's classic comedy Barefoot in the Park, wherein adorable 1960s newlyweds trade quips in a tiny brownstone apartment. The late-night weekend show, closing April 17, is Stop Kiss by Diana Son, who is a sort of anti-Simon. Instead of easy comedy, she gives us hard-truth drama. Instead of '60s newlyweds having their first fight, she offers two young '90s women edging up to their first same-sex love affair.
Both plays benefit from solid productions and excellent work from the lead performers, but of course, it's Barefoot in the Park, directed by Cynthia Jeffery, that's the big crowd-pleaser. Paul and Corie, married just six days, are moving into their first apartment. It's five exhausting flights up (not counting the stoop) to little more than an expanded closet with malfunctioning heat and a hole in the skylight. Corie (Holli Henderson) loves the place, because she loves everything about being married, but Paul (Stephen Frankenfield) is dismayed by the cramped quarters and by his bride's impulsiveness. Their very first week in the place, Corie has tried to fix up her mother (Emily Chamberlain) with an eccentric Hungarian neighbor (Bruce Bieszki). The four of them go out to dinner and get variously drunk; the older couple disappears, and the newlyweds suddenly snap and start talking divorce.
Frankenfield is starting to get typecast as a stick in the mud, but he's a very good stick, and this time is allowed to indulge in a wonderfully childlike drunken scene. Henderson is adorable and irrepressible as Corie, and by now, who could expect otherwise? She manages to charge every gesture, every line with incredible energy and absolute specificity. Just in her wordless entrance, you see her fall in love with her little apartment, then put herself in the place of someone else arriving and falling in love with it, and everything that's going through her mind is perfectly clear through the rise of her chest, the widening and narrowing of her eyes, the levitation of her hands.
Henderson is such a complete world unto herself, yet keenly attuned to everyone around her, that fellow actors often have a little trouble making much of an impression in her presence. Yet the secondary roles come off quite well, with Bieszki and Chamberlain keeping their characters' extravagances under control without underplaying them, and Martin Moorman injecting a bit of sanity and kindness into the proceedings in his small part as a telephone installer.
Stop Kiss, which starts at 10:30 p.m. and requires separate admission, employs the same set, but that's about all it has in common with Barefoot. It takes place about 30 years later than the Simon comedy, and it approaches its characters and their situation with far greater subtlety.
Sara has left her parents and boyfriend in St. Louis to come to New York and teach at a tough elementary school in the Bronx. Early on, she meets Callie, a veteran New Yorker who flies over the city every day in a helicopter, doing radio reports on traffic congestion. Callie feels alienated in her job, but Sara loves her students, and they seem to love her. Callie ought to be the tough New Yorker, but she finds life in the city to be hard, even impossible. Sara, the supposedly naïve Midwesterner, takes to it immediately; as you can tell from her choice of schools, she likes a challenge. Callie is the sort of nonconfrontational person who, if she owned a car, would swerve around potholes; Sara would barrel right over them.
Yet the two hit it off immediately, and soon, their friendship develops a barely repressed sexual tension. Sara has left her boyfriend behind, and Callie is in an extremely loose relationship with a guy named George. The two women are falling for each other, and the play ends with their first kiss at 4 a.m. in a New York City park.
But well-written scenes depicting the development of their relationship are intercut with scenes that take place after that kiss; a thug sees them in the act and beats Sara into a coma. The alternate scenes, under a sickly, bluish light, follow Callie's efforts to come to terms with her feelings for Sara, her dismay at suddenly becoming a poster girl for a crusade against gay-bashing, and her growing desire to care for Sara, rather than letting her parents and boyfriend take her back to St. Louis.
Although this play has much to engage the gay and lesbian community, it's something that just about anybody can identify with; Sara and Callie's relationship unfolds with honesty and detail that make their situation resonate with anybody who's developed an attraction to someone under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Tracy Loving as Callie and Paige Swift as Sara have excellent chemistry, and director Billy Hayes draws subtle performances from them both. If there's anything discordant in this production, it's that Victor Bowleg is perhaps a bit too sympathetic as the police detective investigating the attack; the cop's words suggest a definite antagonism toward the women--he obviously thinks they got what they deserved--while Bowleg's attitude seems more ambiguous. But in the end, ambiguity is not such a bad thing in a play about complicated, believable human beings.