I had no idea what to expect when I went to see this play. Well, not no idea – I knew it was a one-man play (oh, here we go, right?), I knew it involved singing – sea shanties, to be exact (Christ on a bendy-bus, as Malcolm Tucker would say). Not exactly the most auspicious dossier of intelligence, I can tell you.
I was just delighted to find that David Cale’s “the History of Kisses” is a lovely, engaging, and thoroughly winning play about the chances we take in love, life and relationships – and, with a little luck, the rewards we reap.
Make no mistake – this is not Mamet, Genet, or Beckett – nor does it aspire to be. It is much slighter than anything those playwrights created. It was instead a wonderful reminder that sometimes a play can be something delightful, like a short story by Saki or a painting by Chagall. Not high art, but artful nonetheless.
The play is comprised of a series of short stories, all told by – the author, playwright, actor – David Cale himself, alone, on stage, in a series of characters voices. The set design is simple as can be – sand, a lifeguard chair, and a concertina. The setting is a beachside motel in southern California, though sometimes the characters are in other places – New York, for instance. The story is framed by a series of sea shanties, told by one of the characters (I want to say he’s from Hudderfield? Hull?) who, at the age of 50, has decided to visit a sea shanty festival in southern California.
The delight of the stories comes from the surprising overlaps between all the stories – and they all overlap, in the most wonderful ways: this character is the one on the beach with her hands raised, that one is the old man who saw her, this one is the mother that had the affair, that one is the man from the affair, this one’s the man complaining about the singing coming from next door, this one’s the shanty singer. They all get a run out, in their own voice, to tell of the chances they took, the risks they decided to take, the opportunities they seized, and the surprising but satisfying results.
Cale is simply astonishing, switching accents, sexes, and ages with ease and a lithe grace. I simply would not have believed that anyone would be able to carry that heaviest of burdens – the one man show – with such ease, wit, and loose-limbed insouciance, but he manages it.
The stories are adult and a bit dirty, without ever being pornographic, without being too sexy to, say, embarrass your parents if you brought them along. The scope of characters – Judy Garland even gets a run out in probably the only heterosexual context she’s been portrayed in Washington this decade – is wide enough to keep you gasping at the audacity and quiet hilarity of the scenarios.
Ultimately, each character is given a certain grace, a dignity, that makes their stories, no matter how silly, serious, unlikely, or inevitable seem right, true, and necessary. This is excellent storytelling, told by a thoroughly enchanting (in the truest sense of the word) storyteller. I recommend it highly.
Through July 3 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.