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Why Is She Wearing That Dress? In Sarah Ruhl's "Stage Kiss", romance requires both reality and absurdity

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

It makes no sense that the heroine would still be wearing that dress in Act Two, yet it also makes perfect sense. That's how logic works in Stage Kiss, Sarah Ruhl's new comedy about the love of performance and the performance of love. Ludicrous behavior begets honest ideas.

So about that dress. At the top of the play, which is now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, an actress known simply as She (Jessica Hecht) gets cast in a revival of a forgotten melodrama from the 1930s. That seems like a great opportunity until, whoops, she discovers her co-star is He (Dominic Fumusa), a man she used to love. She's married now and has a child and He is happily single, but as they rehearse their scenes about falling in love, they actually do fall in love. Before they know it, the actors have embarked on a passionate affair, and even when they're off stage, they stay dressed like their characters. Back in He's cruddy East Village apartment, he's still sporting a tux, and She's still swanning around in a luxuriant gown.

As any costume designer will tell you, that would never actually happen. There's no way that real-life actors could wander home in their vintage threads. "It is absurd," says director Rebecca Taichman. "It's totally absurd that she's wearing that in the apartment, but that's the point. The point isn't strict realism. The point is this thematic, playful fantasy about how they enter their real lives."

Taichman should know, since this is the fourth time she's directed one of Ruhl's plays. "Sarah can tease out the mundane reality of living and have it crash up together with the existential and the mythic and the absurd," she says.

She adds that a production has to honor both sides of that equation: "If you're missing that bottom layer of the human and the real, then you won't get that beautiful contradiction of the quotidian rubbing up against the mythic, but there's also a danger in these plays of over-thinking. If you hunt too deeply for realistic answers to situations that inherently have an absurdity to them, you can drive yourself mad. You can undo the wonder of the play."

In other words, She and He need to seem believably attracted to each other, and when they're in his apartment, they need to flop on the couch and dig through the cabinets like normal people. But at the same time, there's no use creating an elaborate backstory about how She got that dress on the subway without tearing it or clarifying why He wouldn't change into jeans.

Tonally, it's not easy for a production to flit between epic romance and day-to-day behavior, and Taichman and her team are still refining their approach. "In a very realistic scene, how do you jump out of that?" Taichman asks. "And how marked a change is it? Is this a world where people can just share their dreams, and the transition is very subtle? Are lighting shifts and what happens around them subtle because this is a world in which these things are just possible? These are the questions we're examining in previews, and we're in the process of hunting down the answers."

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Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor