When I walked into Washington U's A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre and looked at Michael Carovillano's set, I thought, "Kiss" must be a play about the differences between art and life, between a theatre set and a real room. Because the walls of the room on the stage were obviously stage flats. The edges where the flats met had not been hidden, nor were they painted to give them a realistic texture. 

They do represent the apartment in Syria of a young woman, Hadeel, who is waiting for three of her friends. Youssif surprises Hadeel by showing up first and early. He's the best friend of Hadeel's boyfriend Ahmed. His girlfriend, Bana, is also coming. Youssif surprises Hadeel not only by coming early but by starting to romance her, telling her how much he loves her, he wants to marry her, spend his life with her. She rejects his advances, tells him no no no, then suddenly says yes yes yes. 

But when Ahmed arrives and proposes to Hadeel, she accepts him. And when Bana arrives, in an unpleasant mood, she reveals that she and Ahmed slept together. 

Then it gets very melodramatic. 

And the play ends, and the characters turn into the actors who played them. They assemble for a video conference that has been scheduled with the playwright. The woman on the screen, who turns out not to be the playwright but her sister because the playwright is dead, tells them that they've gotten the play all wrong because they do not understand what is happening in Syria's civil war, what that has done to people and their lives with bombs falling on them and poison gas spreading. 

The cast decides to try it again. The words are the same, the way they are performed is different. Now they know the reason for Hadeel's contradictory behavior and for the rest of the illogical, chaotic responses. The performance does not get melodramatic. 

So Kiss is a play about the difference between art and life. We have to know the life art is depicting to depict it accurately. Or -- the play doesn't say this -- can the play create its own reality? 

In his notes, the director, William Whitaker, who has done a terrific job with the cast and the production, sees it from the point of view of the actors, those who are making the art. He quotes Samuel Beckett's "Worstword Ho," "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." 

That's what we see the cast do. Anna McConnell makes Hadeel's confusions, certainties, indecisions, and decisions completely believable. Scott Greenberg's Youssif is very intense. You keep your eyes on him, and you're a little afraid of him. Austin Moulder's Ahmed is quieter, a little reserved, nervous and uneasy about proposing. Nathalie Thurman's Bana seems to have some resentment lurking in her. Costume designer Erica Frank has given Bana a hijab, the Islamic head covering; Hadeel does not wear one; her clothes are Western, Bana's traditional. 

The playwright's sister, played by Sabrina Sayed in the video, speaks mostly in Arabic; Tyler Parker is her translator. Waiting for the translation of the answers to their questions gives a dramatic little touch of suspense to the actors' conversation with the sister. 

Ricardo Solis did the lighting, Sam Jamison the sound, Benjamin Lewis the projections. Sarah Azizo was the stage manager, Nathan Lamp the dramaturg. 

I rely on William Whitaker to find interesting plays and to do them well. He has not disappointed with "Kiss."

 

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