David Cale’s one-man show, The History of Kisses — now in its world premiere run at the Studio Theatre — is a dish best served slow. Set in and around a forlorn lifeguard chair perched on the edge of a nondescript California beach adjacent to a seedy motel, Cale’s creative monologue meanders in and out of the lives of lonely men and women whose fleeting romantic encounters cleverly weave themselves together in his closing moments. The whole construct elevates theme over plot. But if you’re patient enough to follow along, the evening can be a rewarding, enlightening, and often moving experience.
As both the writer and the star of the show, Cale carefully controls his material, introducing one by one a series of idiosyncratic characters who seek more out of life but can grasp nirvana only a moment at a time, if at all.
Cale links his stories together with short, traditional-sounding sea chanteys (the program spells it “shanties”), sailor’s songs that relate to a lonely life at sea and brief romances in serial ports of call.
Cale’s characters include an intrepid if somewhat confused writer-songster; a randy Aussie hotel worker; a lonely woman in search of love, if only for a moment; a dentist with an eye for saltwater aquariums and lonely men; a soft-drink tycoon who’d rather be an underpaid U.S. Park Ranger; and a forlorn Judy Garland, well into her long decline and fall.
Each of Cale’s personae—most seemingly well into middle-age and deep introspection—discovers his or her life to be largely a disappointment, punctuated by brief but long-lost moments of enlightenment brought about, directly or indirectly, by an encounter in, on, or near, the relentless ocean tides.
Cale’s characters experience elation and depression, hilarity and sadness, anxiety and resignation. The play’s funniest moments involve a manic faux radio commentary in which the author-actor’s libidinous Aussie character delivers a second-by-second, play-by-play description of a particularly strenuous sexual encounter replete with a bewildering array of down-under bedroom terms.
A bit like Irishman Conor McPherson’s The Weir, which we chanced to see twice this past spring, History of Kisses is, in the end, a series of deeply personal short stories of men and women who are more or less tired of lives that exhausted their promise long ago. Memories of one or two magical moments still survive, during which they were able to establish a fleeting, enigmatic emotional link to another human being. It’s a brass ring they continue to seek, convinced nonetheless that they’ll never find it again.
Perhaps that battered lifeguard chair, plunked down center-stage in the sand, serves as a central metaphor here, uniting all the characters in a human comedy where, severally and together, they seek some kind of rescue from the meaninglessness of life. In the end, no one is really rescued. But, dogged optimists, they continue to seek for personal salvation.
Kisses will be most appreciated by audiences of a certain age who’ve already started to sort through life’s disappointments in a search for perspective. It’s ‘think theater’ where not a whole lot happens on the outside. As was the case with poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, Cale is far more concerned here with inscape rather than plot and action. As a consequence, some theatergoers may find its pace too slow, too lacking in flash, panache, and pizzazz.
Kisses is a minimalist production, but its subtle theatrical touches ground it nicely in reality as exemplified by Luciana Stecconi’s simple beach set. Andre Pluess’ desolate ocean sounds, which waft across the theater at appropriate intervals, provide a realistic atmosphere as does Beverly Emmons’ subtle lighting scheme.
Minuses? A couple. Cale’s varied accents are occasionally inconsistent and his rapid Australian cadences are almost impenetrable at times. His meanderings on the sandy beach significantly favor the right side of the audience over the left, causing those on the left to miss out on key snippets of dialogue. These are minor quibbles, however, and are easily corrected.
A History of Kisses
written, directed and performed by David Cale
Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission
- Barbara Mackay . Washington Examiner
- William Alburque . BrightestYoungThings
John Barry . MDTheatreGuide
- Patrick Folliard . Washington Blade
Patrick Pho . WeLoveDC
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
- Chris Klimek . Washington City Paper
- Celia Wren . Washington Post
Andrej Kresnansky . DCist
- Bob Anthony . AllArtsReview4You