She (Aimee Hayes) is an aging actress desperate for work, her confidence shaken by a recent lack of opportunities.
He (Trey Burvant) is a swaggering stage artist who refuses to compromise his principles and is still paying back student loans.
Their roles in a Victorian-era parlor drama about a dying socialite who forsakes her family to be reunited with her first lover take on added significance when the play begins to mirror actual events.
It seems misleading to call “Stage Kiss” — onstage through Oct. 10 at Ashé Power House Theater in a production by Southern Rep — a romantic comedy. Not because the show lacks romance or comedy — it has plenty of both, and combines them effortlessly — but because it trades the conventions of Hollywood rom-coms for something more real.
Instead of cute first glimpses and grand romantic gestures, Southern Rep’s production of “Stage Kiss,” written by Sarah Ruhl and directed by Jason Kirkpatrick, explores what happens after the romance fades and things start falling apart.
Sparks fly when the two actors, former lovers billed as He and She, discover they’ve both been cast in a present-day revival of a 1930s Broadway flop called “The Last Kiss,” the fictional play-within-the-play.
The onstage chemistry between Hayes and Bruvant drives the play, but the production’s success rests on impressive performances from the entire cast. Nearly everyone plays multiple roles, a tricky feat that requires sharp transitions as the actors move from character to character.
John Neisler plays the devoted, increasingly put-upon husband in “The Last Kiss” with comic seriousness, but he’s also the heartbroken husband who gets left behind when He and She get back together. Likewise, Madison Kerth plays the melodramatic daughter in “The Last Kiss,” but conjures real resentment when she’s abandoned by her mother.
Kristin Witterschein plays a chummy gal-pal in “The Last Kiss,” and she’s also the girlfriend who gets blindsided when He can’t be faithful. Matthew Thompson gets the most strenuous workout, and some of the biggest laughs, as the perpetual understudy and bit player constantly pulled in different directions.
With so many revolving roles, Richard Hutton provides some stability as the director who tries to maintain a semblance of order as everything spirals out of control.
The performances are supported by Kirkpatrick’s scenic design.
Realistically conveyed rehearsal spaces and living spaces transform into a theater-within-the-theater to reveal what happens on both sides of the curtain.
While “The Last Kiss” is a clever framing device for the action of first act, the over-the-top melodrama eventually begins to wear a little thin. The second act, however, offers an effective counterpoint to the first.
The melodrama gives way to real drama when He and She fully commit to rekindling a new relationship and face the fallout of their decision.
There’s another play-within-the-play in the second act, this one a comically ill-conceived ode to the gritty drama of 1970s New York City. It takes up less space than “The Last Kiss,” leaving more room for Hayes and Burvant to reveal their characters’ capacity for hurt and vulnerability.
As Southern Rep’s season opener, “Stage Kiss” picks up where last season left off. Like “Detroit,” the dysfunctional suburban drama that wrapped up the company’s previous season, “Stage Kiss” is an honest look at the everyday lives of men and women trapped between what they have and what they want.