In playwright Diana Son’s “Stop Kiss,” New York City is a dangerous thing that demands respect or else. After 10 years in Manhattan, jaded Callie understands this, but her new friend Sara, a recently arrived Midwesterner who teaches third grade in the Bronx, doesn’t quite get it, and despite numerous warnings — disregard loud neighbors, ignore catcalls, avoid panhandlers — nothing can alter her open and courageous approach to life.
Though slightly concerned by Sara’s lack of street smarts, Callie is mostly delighted with her refreshing forthrightness. Romantic impulses ensue. But despite a mutual attraction, the women (who up until this point have only dated men) are hesitant to act on their feelings. When they finally do, their first kiss is interrupted by extreme violence that almost ends their budding relationship altogether.
Sounds pretty grim, but actually there’s comedy in this drama. Staged by celebrated local actor Holly Twyford (who’s gay) in her directorial debut, No Rules Theatre Company’s production evokes just the right balance of laughs and pain in what’s ultimately a sweet story about love and commitment. At a recent performance, the sizable lesbian portion of the audience seemed particularly pleased at seeing familiar parts of their lives effectively portrayed on stage. They laughed and groaned at the female characters’ clumsy romantic overtures and were audibly disturbed by the play’s gay bashing, a pivotal plot point which takes place off stage.
The action begins when traffic reporter Callie (the reliably good Rachel Zampelli) agrees to cat sit for a friend-of-a-friend named Sara played naturally by Alyssa Wilmoth. Though the women seem polar opposites — Callie is more interested in trendy restaurants than work and Sara is utterly devoted to her underserved students — they click. Still both deny their growing romantic feelings. Sara remains in touch with Peter (Jonathan Lee Taylor), the ex-boyfriend she left in St. Louis, and Callie periodically sleeps with George (Ro Boddie), a longtime sort-of boyfriend whom she may or may not one day marry. The lesbian couple’s getting together is long in coming. At some point, you’re ready to yell “C’mon, plant one on her already.”
The story unfolds non-chronologically, moving back and forth from Callie’s messy apartment to a stark hospital room. Because we know the ordeal that’s awaiting our heroines, it’s as if a dark cloud is gathering over what should be the carefree early days of falling in love.
Costume designer Frank Lobovitz ably assists in demonstrating the women’s differences: Sara is unmistakably a Gotham newbie in her blue wool car coat and synthetic print skirts, while Callie is experimenting with sophisticated looks in black with mixed results. The strong supporting cast includes Karin Rosnizeck, who plays both a soignée witness to the crime and a patient nurse, and Howard Wahlberg as a veteran New York detective.
The straight playwright covers all the coming out bases: Discomfort with revealing sexuality to friends and co-workers, problems with parents and potential in-laws, etc. The 1998 play might sound instructive if it weren’t for its thoughtfully written, intimate scenes. Twyford especially excels in staging the work’s quieter moments, particularly the softly lit scene in which Callie tenderly helps Sarah change from her hospital gown to street clothes. Only when Sara must choose whether to return to St. Louis or remain in New York does Callie truly bare her soul, uncharacteristically committing wholeheartedly.