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Subversive's 'Stop Kiss' leaves audiences reeling

If a play is any good, it will always cause critics to marvel at its continued relevance long after the date of its first production.

See: Shakespeare, Shaw, Ibsen, Miller, Albee.

See also: Diana Son, whose 1998 play "Stop Kiss," about the precursor and aftermath of a brutal hate crime against two New York City women, is now running in a jarring Subversive Theatre Collective production in the Manny Fried Playhouse.

More than most other local companies, Subversive and its troupe of rabble-rousing directors and performers is committed to bringing audiences face-to-face with the dark side of the American soul. There is no sugar-coating here in the ad-hoc surroundings of this tiny theater inside a former car factory, no hand-holding and no choruses of kumbaya. There are just the hard truths of life in the 21st century, laid bare on the stage.

One of those truths, which two gay men recently learned on Allen Street one recent bloody Saturday morning, is that violence against the LGBT community is still a clear and present danger. Even in 2017, members of Buffalo's gay community know that if you walk arm-in-arm with your partner down Allen Street, your free hand better be clenched in a fist.

Two gay men attacked outside Allentown pizzeria

The two women at the center of "Stop Kiss" hadn't learned any of that at the time of their brutal assault at the hands of a rage-filled assailant one early morning in a West Village park. In fact, they were just getting to know one another and to discover their own sexuality. It is both a credit to the devastating power of Son's conception and a withering indictment of American puritanism that they were punished for being lesbians at the very instant they realized it themselves.

Subversive's production, directed by Kelly Beuth, is driven by the performances of Brittany Germano and Jenny Gembka. Germano plays Callie, a jaded New York City traffic reporter stuck in a late-20s romantic rut. That rut is interrupted by the arrival of Sara (Gembka), an idealistic third-grade teacher newly arrived from St. Louis whose fast friendship with Callie soon takes on more serious notes.

Son's script, which transports audiences back and forth in time from the fledgling days of Callie and Sara's relationship to the aftermath of the attack, stops just short of being emotionally manipulative or soap operatic. It unfolds like a particularly smart episode of "Law and Order." And given its weighty subject, it contains a surprising amount of humor and charm, convincingly rendering the awkward flirtations that characterize the start of any romantic relationship.

Germano and Gambia's chemistry works well in the early going, especially in scenes that require a kind of charming awkwardness. This may be partially because their acting itself is tentative, an accidental asset that later becomes a liability when the gravity of their relationship and of the play's central event kicks in and calls for more nuance than the pair can provide.

Solid performances come from John Profeta as Callie's friend with benefits, Theresa DiMuro Wilbur as a witness to the crime and a nurse, and Brian Brown as an indifferent New York City detective who has seen it all.

The production includes a few time-warping script modifications that don't make sense. It's hard, for instance, to believe in characters who would check their answering machines one moment and scroll through Facebook the next. Realistic as the play is, Beuth's scattered attempts at contemporary updates serve only to take the audience out of the moment.

Even so, the strength of Son's script and this more than competent production leaves audiences with two important feelings: a deep mourning for a love affair unjustly arrested and a dreadful notion that what happened to Callie and Sara can, and will, happen again.

THEATER REVIEW

"Stop Kiss"

2.5 stars (out of four)

Presented by Subversive Theatre Collective in the Manny Fried Playhouse (255 Great Arrow Ave.) through March 18.

Tickets are $25 to $30. Call 408-0499 or visit subversivetheatre.org.

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