What is Stop Kiss, exactly? On a literal level, playwright Diana Son's acclaimed one-act is the story of two young women whose tentative first foray into same-sex romance coincides with a brutal hate crime that leaves one of them in a coma and the other scared and confused. Comprised largely of two-character exchanges that veer from the somber to the jokey, the show has too much observational humor to qualify as shock drama; yet no play that depicts a mute, potentially brain-damaged attack victim being read to like a toddler is ever going to qualify as a comedy. And the morning after Stop Kiss officially began its current run at Mad Cow Theatre — its third Orlando airing, by my count — actress Heather Leonardi was quoted in the Sentinel as stating categorically that the play isn't a lesbian love story. Castmate Jill Jones, for her part, opined that it is a love story but not a work "about gay-bashing."

Well, OK, then. And the Mad Cow production is as ruminative and self-contradictory; the clearest impression one receives from it is that it's a study in dread — particularly of the big-city variety. Beneath nearly every one of the script's caustic exchanges and bursts of nervous laughter lies the generalized threat that guides (and retards) so many lives: If you dare do this, you'll get that. It's the ever-looming specter of cruel and unjust punishment that prevents us from doing the most innocuous things, like staying out too late in an ostensibly safe neighborhood. Or following one's muse into the teaching profession, its limited financial reward and dangerous classrooms be damned. Or stealing a public display of affection with somebody of your own gender, an act that's ripe for reprisal even in one of the most liberal cities on the globe.

Daring is not a quality one would associate with Callie (Leonardi), a traffic reporter who appears perfectly content to live her life in stasis. She's an expert at keeping things around, whether it's an albatross like the job she finds unfulfilling or a windfall like the spacious rent-controlled apartment she inherited from a past relationship. Tellingly, her most enduring attachment is to George (Patrick Braillard), a college boyfriend who's filled a convenient friends-with-benefits role in her social calendar ever since.

The promise of something deeper arises when Callie agrees to cat-sit for Sara (Jones), an idealistic schoolteacher fresh off the boat from St. Louis. As eager and wholesome as Callie is sarcastically guarded, Sara laps up whatever city-survival tips the experienced Callie can offer. But even as Sara is misidentifying the Van Wyck Expressway as "the Van Dyke," it's clear that she's taking to her surroundings in a way that systematically disarms the cynical Callie. While the latter is appalled by Sara's readiness to confront a noisy upstairs neighbor, for example, she's also a little thrilled by it — and not only on a platonic level.

Through the play's time-shifting structure, which interweaves the women's awkward courtship with scenes set in a hospital some time in the future, we know that Callie and Sara will become lovers, and that this development will inspire a violent attack that leaves Sara comatose, her very life in jeopardy. Though the aura of inevitability is sad and strong, the flashbacks as written are sometimes disorienting, and comprehension isn't eased by the Cows' perfunctory scene changes. As a group, they're far better at imparting the sense of place that is Son's greatest accomplishment. Not only do characters refer to actual New York establishments by name, but words and performances alike perfectly convey the essential wisdom that the Big Apple is a city of people trying desperately to act like New Yorkers. Listen to Callie's repeated professions of how much she "hates" the place — any resident worth his or her salt has to make them — and then contrast them to Son's subtle suggestion that, of the pair, the fearless Sara might actually be the "real" Manhattanite in her willingness to confront obstacles head-on. Perhaps Callie is merely a timid spectator with more years on the job?

While the production may be philosophically fixed in New York, stylistically it's all over the map. Director Thomas Oullette allows some supporting turns that work against themselves and each other: Even the immensely talented Don Fowler remains a cipher as an interrogating cop whose brusqueness in attempting to solve the hate crime could denote either insensitivity or hard-nosed professionalism. I gave up trying to guess, just in time to be totally thrown by the appearance of Christine Robison, whose gift for character comedy appeared directly at odds with the pivotal role of an inscrutable eyewitness. In the small role of Sara's ex, Chris Holz at first came on strong as a figure of hurt disillusionment but was stymied by the aforementioned reading-aloud scene; sharing the stage with a vegetable is a form of monologue not many performers can pull off.

Even the interplay between the two unquestionably talented lead actresses leaves a bit to be desired. Leonardi played the Sara role in an earlier production (at Rollins College), and her assumption of the opposite part isn't entirely smooth. She has Callie's irony-soaked defensiveness down pat — slight shades of her haughty Evelyn in Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things a few Cow seasons back — but the eventual and genuine melting of the character's heart is harder to limn. At least the production is something of a landmark for Jones, a young up-and-comer who is shown off to far better effect than she was in her last gig: playing a stoner in the recent Fringe Festival sketch Misleading Perceptions. Here, she uses her comforting cadences and guileless demeanor to make Sara an emotionally accessible agent of change. It's a portrayal that could easily descend into cloying Pollyanna-isms, but that never happens.

The characterization typifies everything good the play has to say about fear and its consequences. Son's heavily foreshadowed narrative leads toward a replay of the much-discussed bashing, and it's uncertain to the last minute if the playwright is going to close on the attack itself or the equally momentous occurrence that is the ladies' first kiss. The choice she makes helps Stop Kiss advance a credo that's well-known to anybody who ever took a significant risk: "What are they going to do, kill me?" The answer Son chooses to submit — "Maybe, but not today" — is the most optimistic one a world-wise theatergoer has any right to expect.

Through Aug. 6
Mad Cow Theater
(407) 297-8788
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