Kiss – Review by Geary Danihy

Yes, it’s three – three – three plays in one! Whether the three actually cohere remains to be seen, but “Kiss,” currently on the stage at Yale Repertory Theatre, does present some surprises and you certainly leave the theater with much to talk about. Written by Guillermo Calderon and directed by Evan Yionoulis, this exercise in creative introspection has an intriguing premise – to wit, what if the actors and director misinterpret the playwright’s intentions? In other words, what if they get it wrong? How do you make amends?

It’s difficult to write about this play and not stumble into spoiler-land. In any event, the first third of the play deals with two couples living in Damascus who have love issues. There’s Hadeel (Sohina Sidhu), a rather confused (and emotionally malleable) young woman who professes heartfelt love for two suitors, Ahmed (Ian Lassiter) and Yousif (James Cusati-Moyer), and then there’s Bana (Hend Ayoub), an actress on a popular Syrian soap opera who is romantically involved with Youssif. It is, in essence, the stuff of soap operas, with revelations and emotional upheavals flying about and a lot of “Who loves whom” and “How could you…?” making up much of the dialogue. It’s all pretty banal, and the thought arises: why did the Yale Rep decide to produce this play? Well, there’s more going on than meets the initial eye.

Blackout. The play, as shallow as it is, is over? Nope. A door opens and Ayoub comes out to announce that there will be a talk-back of sorts, for they’ve arranged for a video link with the playwright, who is in a refugee camp somewhere in the tortured Middle East. Enter, supposedly, the playwright, listed in the program as “Woman” (Rasha Zamamiri) with an Interpreter (Abubakr Ali). The cast gathers and begins to ask questions. The answers are a bit disturbing, for a “kiss” is not just a kiss and a “cough” carries greater meaning. In other words, the director (Ayoub, playing Bana) and the rest of the cast have totally misunderstood what the play is about.

The answer? Well, let’s do it all again, and this time we’ll get it right. So, off they go, with a lot of cinematic-style quick-cuts and lighting pyrotechnics, compliments of Erin Earle Fleming, to reprise the play, but this time with a lot more angst, anxiety and pain, and with just about everyone coughing. In the process, as a statement of…well…I’m not sure exactly what…the cast proceeds to destroy much of the set. That the audience now knows what a “kiss” and a “cough” mean is meant to add gravitas to the play’s final section. Perhaps it does, but when you have to read the articles in the playbill to get an understanding of what Calderon is getting at – rather than it actually being up there on the stage – you have a less than satisfying theatrical experience. Soap operas and Syria? What’s that all about? Well, read the playbill article.

There’s no doubt that what has happened in Syria is horrific, and the play feeds off this, but in an off-hand and somewhat pretentious manner. By that I mean that it doesn’t generate its own center of gravity but relies on the audience’s awareness of the Syrian tragedy to fill in the blanks. Thus, the play’s final moments, when it seeks to draw on this awareness, seem somehow fraudulent, a borrowing that is not deserved or earned.
The odd thing about this play is that, for all of its portentousness, it has, in its underlying premise, the possibility for being a tantalizing farce: cast gets it wrong, writer sets them right, cast makes another attempt and, in the process, makes a hash of the whole thing. But that’s not “Kiss,” which strives to be more than it really is.

“Kiss” runs through May 19. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org

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