How do you deal with the Syrian War, its affect on civilians, its chaos, its crimes, its devastation? Yale Rep’s intermissionless, 95-minute “Kiss” (it feels a lot longer) begins in banality and ends in anger. The friends who, at first, meet in a Damascus apartment to perform an intentionally cliché version of domestic rivalry and fluid relationships, soon learn to play for keeps. Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón shows how an entire society has been lulled into a narcotic trance of compliance and callousness, one that white-outs tradition.
“Kiss” questions the very nature of art. The four actors seem to be portraying characters gathered to watch a cheesy TV soap opera and deal with their own soapy lives. Struggling through bland dialogue, they perform in a manner that screams “artificiality.” Are they doing the play correctly? Are they missing all sorts of political meanings? Only the author, or author’s surrogate, would know.
When one soap opera character says “Life is suffering,” she’s referring to domestic struggles. What she ignores, to her detriment, is the real-life suffering in the streets where citizens are being gassed and killed.
In their hermetic studio, they’re isolated from outside terrors. Too tied up in their own lives and the lives of their characters, they should instead be using their art to arouse and encourage audiences to protest, according to what they later learn.
Admirable as its intentions are, “Kiss” suffers from the same ennui that the playwright complains about. The painfully over-extended melodrama about love and betrayal is meant to be more amusing then it is, although some in the audience laughed out loud at admittedly ludicrous lines like “I want to smell your wallet” and “I want to kiss your leather jacket.”
The evening does become more serious in its second third with a ton of explication. The final third, highlighted by Wladimiro A. Woyno R.’s projection design, is both summation and warning against indifference. Except for the minaret seen in the distance, designer Ao Li’s setting, with its precise furniture arrangement, is generic and could be anywhere.
Director Evan Yionoulis’ light-to-dark palette reinforces the push-pull between internal ideas and external actions. Her young cast — Hend Ayoub, Sohina Sidhu, James Cusati-Moyer, Ian Lassiter, Rasha Zamamiri and Abubakr Ali — adeptly delineates the play’s combination of reality and artificiality.
“Kiss” wants us to know that art without meaning is not only the great leveler, it’s the great emptiness. The lesson for our times is inescapable.