How do you visualize hate? In American History X, when Edward Norton's character commits a brutal, crunching hate crime at the curb outside his home, the voyeuristic camera is so up-close as to make the moment obscenely unwatchable. When a hate crime is perpetrated in Diana Son's play Stop Kiss, we are not compelled to watch, because there's nothing to see. The heinous act occurs offstage. Instead of going into shock, we are forced to feel. Stop Kiss may be fraught with violence, but this gentle production from Hydeware Theatre provides a surprisingly tender experience.
Set in Manhattan in the present, the plot concerns the chance friendship between Callie, a successful yet aimless radio traffic reporter, and Sara, a young schoolteacher from St. Louis (Chesterfield, actually) who has arrived in the Big Apple brimming with naive enthusiasm. Written in nonlinear form, the play informs us quickly enough that one of the two women has been beaten into a coma after the pair was seen kissing in public. Then we skip back and forth in time, slowly wending our way to the attack.
As this casual friendship ever so cautiously graduates to relationship, playwright Son cunningly knows how to cast out plot points as if they were bait on a fishing line. She slowly lets out a little more line, a little more. She knows exactly when to start reeling in and we are hooked. We care about these two women; we appreciate their ambivalence. It hurts us when media coverage callously brands them in the public eye as lesbians. No one but Callie and Sara will ever know that this was their first innocent kiss, caressed in possibility.
There's almost a sense here that the two lead actresses have been cast against type. Callie, who can only find the downside of riding in helicopters over Manhattan, is the bored one, yet Amy Leone's eyes emanate urgency. They're like two boxing gloves, constantly jabbing. Because Brian Hyde's set design keeps the audience up close, Leone's impassioned eyes sometimes are able to reach out and swing at us too. She restlessly dominates her apartment. She preens in front of the mirror; this is Callie's domain. But when we see her crouched on a sterile hospital cot after the attack, frightened and meek, Leone seems to have physically shrunk. That moment provides a striking visual. As the take-charge Sara, Melissa Rae Brown seems somewhat less sure. But by evening's end the two actresses are working well together.
Among the featured players, Alan David brings a refreshingly natural quality to Callie's boyfriend George. Director Ember Hyde gets credit for the sweetness that permeates the proceedings. At the same time, I'm not sure about her use of slides between each scene. Some photos are effective; others are not. But shouldn't the paramount concern here be the play's pace? Stop Kiss contains lots of scenes, many of them short. They're intended to move quickly. Sometimes it seemed as if the only reason for the slides is to allow a stage manager to switch jackets on the coat rack next to the front door. They'd do better to just junk the coat rack.
Also in the interest of pace, I don't think the play is supposed to have an intermission, though it does here. Between intermission and photos, at least twenty minutes have been tacked on to an evening that otherwise might have sped by. Hydeware claims that its mission is to overthrow "the preconceptions of how theatre is experienced." That might explain the slides: Maybe they're intended as a new way to experience the story. And ultimately the photos don't erode the evening's impact.
Preconceptions aside, mostly what's happening at Stop Kiss is that a really nice play about two really nice people is receiving a loving production. You can't get much more old-fashioned than that, even at Hydeware.