The Asphalt Kiss
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 8, 2005
Nelson Rodrigues's play The Asphalt Kiss has a splashy beginning, a disturbing yet compelling middle, and a terrific surprise ending. Sarah Cameron Sunde has staged it with style and rigor, on a cool, spare, multi-leveled set by Lauren Helpern that proves the perfect environment for this slightly absurdist, slightly magical, but mostly scarily realistic play about lies, manipulation, and different kinds of wanton power.
The Asphalt Kiss is about an ordinary young man named Arandir who witnesses a fatal accident—a bus hits a man waiting at a busy intersection. Just before he dies, the man asks Arandir to kiss him, and though Arandir doesn't know this stranger, he grants the dying wish.
Unfortunately for Arandir, he's been seen by lots of people, most significantly an ambitious news reporter named Amado, who decides that this odd act of grace should become fodder for sensational scandal. He bullies the police into investigating Arandir and his family, seeking motivation for a crime that didn't exist until Amado decreed it. Quickly, word gets out that Arandir and the dead man knew each other; that they were lovers; that Arandir pushed the man in front of the bus. Arandir's life is, of course, completely ruined by the innuendo and lies. So are the lives of many of those around him, including his young wife Selminha and the widow of the man killed by the bus. Arandir's father-in-law, Aprigio, is also ruinously affected, as the cycle of events forces him to confront truths about himself that he heretofore refused to acknowledge, truths that can remain unspoken so long as Aprigio lets himself buy into the web of deceit being propagated by the media and the police.
It's a riveting, fascinating story, and its accelerating horrors spin out with black humor that quickly morphs into disquieting cruelty. The thing that makes The Asphalt Kiss so resonant is the lock that the media and the government, working together, seem to have on the public consciousness. And what makes it feel like an especially pertinent cautionary tale is that the decision to destroy Arandir feels entirely arbitrary: Amado and his colleagues turn an innocent act of kindness into a colossal media fracas simply because they can—even the desire to distract the populace seems secondary to their need to exercise control randomly and ruthlessly.
The apparent powerlessness of just about everybody involved to resist the onslaught of this institutionalized and systematic machinery of manipulation gives The Asphalt Kiss its punch.
The play was written in 1960 by Rodrigues, who was then generally considered Brazil's most important playwright (he died in 1980). The influence of absurdists like Ionesco is very clear: Arandir reminded me of Berenger in Rhinoceros, a man standing alone against an irrational tide of dangerous conformity (in this case, acceptance of the mandated "truth" about the dying man's kiss). I think it's also worth noting that the play's story is fueled by another convention of that time that, one hopes, is no longer so acceptable, i.e., the idea that even hinting that Arandir was the dying man's lover would be, prima facie, sufficient to destroy his reputation and his life.
Alex Ladd's translation keeps the piece grounded in period and style, with rhythms that feel just a shade unnatural and stilted; I thought it worked beautifully. James Martinez and Charles Turner both anchor the play solidly as, respectively, Arandir and his father-in-law Aprigio. Also impressive among the eight-member cast are Joe Capozzi as the villainous Amado and Jessica Kaye as Arandir's wife.