A kiss is still a kiss, but the world doesn't always welcome lovers. Jessica Hecht's character Callie learns that fact the hard way in Stop Kiss, a new play by Diana Son which opens on Dec. 6 at The Public Theater.
In the play, Callie, a smart-but-aimless New Yorker, finds direction in life with the help of a new friend, Sara (Sandra Oh). Friendship blossoms into love between the two previously heterosexual women. But when they finally share a kiss, Sara becomes the victim of a brutal gay bashing. Callie must confront a range of demons -- both internal and external -- as Sara lies comatose in the hospital and the story is picked up by the voracious New York media.
For Hecht -- who has played such diverse characters as the Southern belle Lala in Broadway's Last Night of Ballyhoo and the goofy, lovestruck Helena in Theatre for a New Audience's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream -- complex Callie was a dream role. "If there is some aspect of the character that is different from myself, that's what initially attracts me," she relates. "I'm also interested in lifestyles that are unusual."
Playing a gay character isn't all that unusual for Hecht. Two years before Ellen Degeneres came out of the closet, the actress portrayed one of prime-time's first lesbians: Ross's ex-wife's lover Susan on "Friends." So, when she was first approached about Stop Kiss , she reserved judgment until she read the play. "I've played a number of gay characters and, not that I don't have a lot of sensitivity to [gay] issues, but I wasn't sure I wanted to do another play grappling with that," she says. "The writing style, though, was quite amazing. It sounds like completely normal speech, but it's actually very stylized. All the sentences are, in effect, truncated. It was fascinating to me." The structure, too, is unique. Upbeat scenes of Sara and Callie's relationship before the attack alternate with the dark, emotional interactions that take place later. In one particularly memorable moment, Hecht glides effortlessly from Callie and Sara's comic first encounter to a scene in which a tearful Callie is interrogated by a police detective. Surprisingly, this metamorphosis was achieved with very little preparation. In the first three preview performances, the interrogation scene opened the play. "It was jarring to the audience because they didn't have access to the character -- they didn't know these people," Hecht recalls. "It was sort of off-putting. They drew back in their seats. So it was changed."
Thanks to director Jo Bonney's thorough rehearsal process, Hecht was able to roll with the changes. "What we did is to rehearse the scenes out of sequence," she explains. "We went through the detective questioning scene over and over in isolation. So, I knew emotionally what I had to get to. You get 'muscle memory' for what that experience is about and you can shift into it very quickly. It's almost as simple as sitting in a chair and hearing a voice can trigger those [darker] scenes for me." The Connecticut-born daughter of two psychotherapists, Hecht didn't always want to act. "I didn't know what I wanted to do for a while," she says. "I was interested in languages. Studying human behavior always interested me too, but I didn't want to follow what everyone in my family was doing." Though she went through a "classic, troubled teenage" period, Hecht discovered the theatre during her senior year in high school and went on to study drama at NYU. "That was really wonderful for me," recalls the actress, who landed the role of Midsummer's Helena shortly after graduation and went on to appear on TV shows like "Seinfeld," and "The Single Guy" (on which she was a regular, as Janeane) and in numerous theatrical productions. Her performance in Plunge , at Playwright's Horizons, caught the attention of Stop Kiss playwright Son, and led to her current role. Unlike Callie, who loathes her job as a radio traffic reporter, Hecht finds her work gratifying for the most part. Still, she knows where Callie is coming from: "She thinks, 'Is this really something that is beneficial to society?' As an actor you go through that -- at least I do," she admits. "I think, 'Is this decadent? What am I doing?' There are other professions that seem more truly honorable. So, those emotions that Callie has are very accessible to me."
-- Alison Sloane Gaylin