The comedy is there in surplus, the romance not so much in Sarah Ruhl's romantic comedy "Stage Kiss," which opened Friday at the Guthrie Theater.
Ruhl's backstage drama is about two erstwhile lovers who are cast as erstwhile lovers in a cheesy 1930s spoof. This metatheatric concept drives a play that muses on the hazards when actors kiss actors and "feel the moment" a bit too strongly.
She (Stacia Rice) and He (Todd Gearhart) are the actors who put their homeostasis in peril — she has a husband and daughter, he a steady friend.
Ruhl's first act spins out the audition, rehearsal and opening of the play-within-a-play. We are told (but not convinced) that the kissing and intimacy have thrown the two into love by intermission. All then gets returned to the way it was by the end of the second act.
"She always falls in love with whomever she's in a play with," says She's husband, drolly and a little wearily.
Director Casey Stangl gives the Guthrie production a 1950s sitcom atmosphere — broad and overcooked, reinforced by scene changes filled with music from that era. It's pleasing in a way, yet rarely are we on the steady ground of time and place.
Stangl takes her cues from Ruhl's lively stitchwork in piecing together comic scenes and drawing characters who are a tad askew.
Rice stands at the center, showing off her natural charisma and comedy chops that she has honed — consciously or not — on the model of Mary Tyler Moore. She can play righteously tough one moment and fall to pieces the next. She looks great in Devon Painter's costumes — chic, glamorous and, during a second play-within-a-play, absolutely ridiculous.
Gearhart's He is in a state of arrested development, living in a dreary East Village apartment that has a desperate vibe (set by Todd Rosenthal). Gearhart is content to play second fiddle to Rice, never seizing the upper hand.
He has drifted since He and She broke up. His current friend teaches kindergarten and has a buoyant optimism that he can't share. Cat Brindisi's eager sincerity is perfect for the role.
Michael Booth is the husband — the adult grounded in reality — who reminds us that marriage is about repetition, the sun coming up and going down each day. Romance is everything but repetition. It's a trenchant statement from the playwright on a long-standing idea.
Stangl draws exaggerated performances from Charles Hubbell as the stage director and Grant Fletcher Prewitt as a hapless actor.
Hubbell looks unmistakably like a character from a 1962 Hanna-Barbera cartoon — you know, the skinny hipster in beret, big glasses and blues stash? Prewitt has a Tim Conway thing going on with frenetic energy and big mugs.
The fluidity between reality and backstage farce offers some wonderfully absurd moments, such as when four characters break into "Some Enchanted Evening," but this whole affair (so to speak) will hang in your soul (if you believe you have one) only on comic terms.
As for the kiss? It flees with the morning sun.