2005_10_arts_asphalt1.jpg Nelson Rodrigues was a Brazilian writer whose father owned a newspaper, a circumstance that shaped a great deal of Rodrigues’ life and would also, at least on the surface, seem to have been the guiding influence behind his 1960 play The Asphalt Kiss, in which events are set in motion by a ruthless reporter’s desire to create a big story. In this excellent production of the play by the Lord Strange Company – the play’s premiere in New York – it’s clear that there’s vastly more going on in the characters’ relationships and worldviews, and a story more complicated than a denouncement of the media’s love of scandal. It makes for a taut 90 minutes that had Gothamist very involved in the viewing and figuring out what was going on between the lines, so that we totally forgot, temporarily anyway, the nagging concerns we took with us into the theater, and we always think it’s a good sign when that happens.

The kiss referred to in the title takes place by a curb of a Rio de Janeiro street, when a man is fatally hit by a bus and an onlooker, Arandir (James Martinez), kneels to kiss him. Why he does so is the question that’s thrashed out over the course of the play – was it an act of blind mercy, or did the men know each other? Was the man already dead, and was his death Arandir’s fault?

2005_10_arts_asphalt2.jpg The kiss itself doesn’t happen on stage – we see the aftermath, and the results of others’ judgments. Arandir’s father-in-law Aprigio (Charles Turner) was with him at the accident; so was the reporter, Amado (Joe Capozzi), and both tell (or splash across the newspapers, as the case may be) their own versions of the story, versions based on prior prejudices and current goals, most of which the audience only learns about gradually. Obviously the charge that Arandir is gay – a social crime, if not technically against the law – is the main issue, what gets everyone riled up, even if they don’t believe it at first, as in the case of Arandir’s wife Selminha (Jessica Kaye). But feeding into this question is a complicated family drama that is palpable from the early moment Aprigio arrives to inform his daughter of what’s happened; his other daughter, Selminha’s little sister Dalia (Arlene Chico-Lugo) lives with Selminha and Arandir, and as though the difficulties between the first three characters aren’t enough, Dalia’s tantrums and petulance (Chico-Lugo captures the childishness well) make things even worse.

Each part of the production contributes to maintain the way Rodrigues’ plot keeps viewers engaged and guessing. The set, by Lauren Helpern, looks startlingly plain at first, but in many scenes the lights throw up the actors’ magnified shadows, and lighting designer Traci Klainer’s color choices and effects like the appearance of Venetian blind slats also work with the simple white stairs and ramps in a very expressive way. The acting, of course, is even more key to making the whole thing work, and fortunately the actors were extremely well cast and turn in really high quality performances. Rodrigues wrote a few of them as gross caricatures – the less central characters like the police, mostly – but the actors are funny in their roles (particularly Paul Klementowicz as various witless oafs), and the humor is a welcome light note to go with the darker elements of the play, so you don't care so much about the stereotyping. We only wished somewhat that Rodrigues would have given the journalist more of a layered and extensive part; his family history in the business probably had a lot to do with the play’s genesis, so it would’ve been great if he’d brought more of his insight to bear on Amado’s character and shown more of his background rather than making him a simple villain.

In the end, The Asphalt Kiss seemed to Gothamist to engage in an important and memorable way with the idea of trust in a modern media-saturated society that still values parts of a traditional code – an approach that is probably even more relevant now than when Rodrigues was writing. The newspaper printed all of this stuff about Arandir, so it must be true, right? Arandir’s wife is really the one at the heart of the conflict, because she is assaulted from all sides by people trying to get her to believe their version of events, and Jessica Kaye does a wonderful job of subtly depicting Selminha’s shifting feelings. And Arandir himself, in James Martinez’s sensitive portrayal, provides a clear example of the disturbing power that media-fueled rumor has over one’s psyche. Even though the play is, as we noted earlier, ultimately rooted almost as much in a family drama that descends a bit into melodrama, its indictment of the media’s disturbing ability to undermine even strong relationships and convictions is what will stay with you and make your heart a little heavy. One can only imagine what Rodrigues would have thought of the 24/7 news cycle and blogosphere that govern the world today.

Details: The Asphalt Kiss is part of the monthlong Nelson Rodrigues festival at 59E59 Theatres (59 E. 59th St.). It plays Wed.-Sat. at 8pm, through 10/29. Tickets are at Ticket Central. On Sat. at 2 and Sun. at 3, the theater will screen Rodrigues’ film All Nudity Shall Be Punished, and next Tues. at 8 the Classical Theatre of Harlem will do a reading of his play Black Angel. See the festival website for more events and details.

Photo by Peter Dressel (NYT)