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Theater Review: “The History of Kisses” at Studio Theatre

David Cale’s new one-man show is an expansive look at love

In The History of Kisses, a writer sequesters himself in an oceanfront motel to finish a collection of romantic tales, only to find himself drawn into the sexual goings-on around him. Photograph by Carol Pratt

 ☆☆☆½ stars out of four

An old adage goes, “As the ocean is never full of water, so the heart is never full of love.” Both take center stage in The History of Kisses, David Cale’s new one-man show, currently playing at Studio Theatre, where love is a tricky, transient thing and the ocean its mysterious enabler. In 90 minutes alone onstage, Cale manages to express the fear and joy both can bring, while flitting between characters as diverse as an Australian surf hunk, a neurotic single mother, an elderly English folk singer, and Judy Garland.

Cale is an author and performer, but he is first and foremost a storyteller, whose work has appeared on public radio’s* This American Life and The Next Big Thing, as well as on stages across the country. In The History of Kisses, which he also wrote and directs, a scrapbook approach uses different voices to recall momentary affairs and chance encounters, all provoked by that greatest of un-inhibitors: the beach vacation. Stories are punctuated by two different unifying threads—sea shanties sung by Robert Grundy, a former English sailor turned troubadour, and the experiences of a central character, James, a writer holed up by the ocean trying to finish his book (which is, conveniently enough, a collection of erotic-themed beach stories).

Cale’s first entrance onto the stage, which is covered in what looks like thousands of pounds of sand and features only a single lifeguard chair, is so halting and tentative, it’s almost alarming when he launches immediately into song. But as soon as he jumps into his first story, “Lisa,” it’s impossible not to become absorbed in his exquisitely rendered characters. As Lisa, a New Yorker whose husband left her after multiple miscarriages, Cale recalls a moment of pure freedom on a Portugal vacation, capturing the perfect combination of loneliness and exhilaration. His rubber-faced demeanor allows him to jump from character to character without confusing the audience, even though he mostly resists the temptation to give them strikingly different voices. Instead, through nuance and physicality, various layers unfurl.

Cale is a natural comedian, so a dream sequence involving an Australian sex seminar is achingly funny, while his instinct to undercut eroticism with humor and self-doubt is testament to his British heritage. The awkwardness of a new liaison is detailed, as is the fear behind loneliness, and the extraordinary excitement of a chance encounter. As Lisa, Cale tears up while describing the character’s son; as James, his inability to find love seems to come from a crippling fear of the unknown. His characters may not necessarily find happy endings, but through brief escapes from being themselves, they find something else instead.

Love and sex, so often isolated onstage, are intertwined here, as are desire and inhibition. On Luciana Stecconi’s set, a seemingly magical beach, anything seems possible, if only for a minute. Beverly Emmons’s shifting lighting helps define a mood, whether it’s communicating the darkness of an airplane cabin or the mysterious glow of an aquarium. This is an extraordinarily intimate play, at times uncomfortable, but consistently offering a fascinating glimpse into the happiness we seek in others.

The History of Kisses is at Studio Theatre through July 3; tickets ($35 to $65) available at Studio Theatre’s Web site.

Correction: We initially referred to This American Life as a property of NPR. We apologize for the error.

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