Fifteen-year-old Lala is an original. And so is the play Lala vividly inhabits — Lenelle Moïse’s “K-I-S-S-I-N-G” — its debts to other storytelling forms notwithstanding.
In the premiere of “K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” director Dawn M. Simmons and her cast so skillfully traverse the complex emotional terrain Moïse has mapped out that the production establishes itself as one of the highlights of the Boston theater season.
Regan Sims is outstanding as Lala, an aspiring artist with no experience in romance whose world begins to widen when she meets 16-year-old fraternal twins Dani (Sharmarke Yusuf) and Albert (Ivan Cecil Walks).
Dani is soulful and sensitive, if a bit elusive. Albert is cocky and charismatic, adept at keeping the issues he’s wrestling with out of sight. Lala finds herself drawn to both of them; certain qualities in each brother appeal to her. Over the course of a summer and into fall, all three will be changed in some way, their journey of discovery marked by detours and hairpin turns.
Of course, the “Whom will she choose?” dilemma is a rom-com staple. And Moïse, who attended Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, employs structural elements of the classic coming-of-age story as well.
But the playwright takes “K-I-S-S-I-N-G” to a deeper place, with incisive portraiture that explores questions of sexuality, sibling dynamics, class, racial identity, guilt, post-partum depression, second chances, and the mysteries of attraction, all of them firmly rooted in character.
There’s a consistent vitality to the dialogue, and the production — a collaboration between Front Porch Arts Collective and The Huntington — is visually sumptuous as well, saturated in large, painterly images of faces, falling leaves, and stars (the scenic design is by Jason Ardizzone-West, and the projection design is by Yee Eun Nam and Hannah Tran).
Dani and Albert live in an affluent neighborhood and attend a prep school; Lala lives in a housing project and attends public school. But she isn’t intimidated by the brothers, illustrated early on by her initial rebuff of Albert’s come-on. “I don’t understand who this works for,” she tells him. “You think you can just get all up in a girl’s face and it’s some big turn-on?”
Lala knows who she is. Can Dani and Albert say the same of themselves?
In an act of dramaturgical daring, given how frequently Moïse mines a comic vein in “K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” the play’s opening scene is a harrowing one. It’s built on a horrific event that reverberates much later on, giving us a fuller picture of one of the supporting characters. Separately, an unexpected complication in Lala’s relationship with one of the brothers surfaces midway through the play.
It is Dani who takes Lala on her first visit to a museum and encourages her to look deeper into the meaning and messages contained in the paintings; it is Albert who teaches her how to kiss, in an intricate, step-by-step process of instruction.
Walks endows Albert with an energetic, outsized personality that made him a crowd favorite at Wednesday night’s performance. As Dani, Yusuf adds another stellar portrayal to his recent string of excellent performances, including his Elliot Norton Award-winning turn in Aziza Barnes’s “BLKS.”
Patrese D. McClain is riveting as Dot, Lala’s intensely commanding mother, and the ever-steady James Milord is poignant as Lala’s father, Jack, determined to stay close with his daughter as she goes through the inevitable turmoil of adolescence. Bobby Cius, so compelling in the 2020 co-production of “Pass Over” by SpeakEasy Stage Company and Front Porch Arts Collective, plays a neighbor who tries to interest Dot in a community garden.
He’s motivated by compassion, and so, too, is playwright Moïse, to judge by the way she makes us care about all the characters in “K-I-S-S-I-N-G.”
Play by Lenelle Moïse. Directed by Dawn M. Simmons. Co-production by Front Porch Arts Collective and The Huntington. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through April 2. Digital access to filmed performance through April 16. Tickets to in-person performances and digital recording start at $25. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org