What's the responsibility of a plot point?
That's the question I'm left with after seeing Diana Son's Stop Kiss at the Lounge Theatre in Hollywood.
The play, written in 1998, revolves around a hate crime and a kiss. Two women are walking through Manhattan's West Village at four in the morning. They kiss and then randomly and inexplicably a passerby brutally beats one of them into a coma.
While that's at the center Stop Kiss how we get there is one of the gifts of the play. The narrative folds back on itself so the audience is following two time periods simultaneously. One leads up to the kiss and the beating; the second picks up the day after that kiss with one of the women in a coma and the other in a police precinct being questioned by an NYPD detective to find out how and why.
We're following Callie and Sara, two heterosexual women who slowly and awkwardly discovering that, hey, they're in love...with each other. Sara has just moved to the city to follow her dreams. She's a third grade teacher, an idealist who speaks her mind. Callie is a jaded New Yorker who's stuck in a rut. Callie avoids trouble; Sara confronts it.
As an audience we're on familiar ground and engaged in the question, "Will these two women discover their love?" There's something satisfying to following their journey. It's ostensibly a love story about finding your voice and coming out.
The other story line, what happens after the beating, after that critical plot point, is not nearly as satisfying. Here's the trouble, playwright Diana Son uses a random violent act as the fulcrum of her play. The ironic twist is that we learn what probably got the women beaten up was that Sara spoke up and told the gay-basher to get lost. The playwright punishes her characters for the very thing she's been trying to get them to do -- announce their love. Which begs the question, why?
Why does this act of violence occur? In the world, we are forced to grapple with random brutality and must in some ways simply accept it. In the theatre though, bringing that violence into the narrative is the responsibility of the playwright. What's troubling about Stop Kiss is that the playwright introduces the question of why without answering it. That leaves the audience wanting the same answers the police detective is trying to get to: Why did this happen?
Two months before Stop Kiss opened at the Public Theater in New York in 1998, Matthew Shepard was beaten to death in Laramie, Wyoming. Gay-bashing became a national horror. A year and a half later, Moises Kauffman and the Tectonic Theatre Company premiered The Laramie Project, a play that bravely tried to tackle "Why?"
This production of Stop Kiss is beautifully acted and directed. I was just left wishing Diana Son had embraced the power of hate crime and done the really, really tough writing that helped make sense of it.
Stop Kiss plays through December 18 at the Lounge Theatre in Hollywood.
This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.
Run time: 90 Minutes (no intermission)
Banner image: Emma Jacobson-Sive in Stop Kiss. Photo by Anthony Auer