Prelude to a Kiss
In Craig Lucas's Prelude to a Kiss, Peter and Rita meet cute and proceed to have one of those idiosyncratic, charming conversations that invariably herald on-stage love — except that this conversation has points of real shadow and light. Soon after discovering that she has a passion for social justice, that he was rejected by two step-parents and that they both love spaetzle (bewilderingly pronounced "spetzels"), Peter and Rita decide to marry. But just as you assume that Prelude to a Kiss is simply another intelligent and nicely executed romantic comedy, the plot veers off into fantasy and the play becomes a parable, an extended exploration of the meaning of selfhood and love. An old man no one knows shows up at the wedding and kisses Rita and, in this moment, somehow exchanges souls with her — a transaction that only becomes clear to Peter when his new wife starts exhibiting ideas and behaviors he's never seen before.
Prelude to a Kiss is a terrific choice for Miners Alley, a really stunning piece of dramaturgy that expresses profound, even heart-rending ideas in dialogue as bright as sunlight on water and through a plot that intrigues and entertains. And though director Brenda Cook has focused more on the play's comic surface than its depths, there's some good acting on display, too. Chris Bleau is a strong anchor for the evening, playing Peter with a level of belief and integrity that convinces you of his bizarre predicament and evokes your sympathy. Joel Sutcliff contributes a welcome shot of verve and energy as his friend, and there's solid work from Tony Cantanese, Sally Clodfelter (when she calms down a little) and Flavia Florezell.
But while Courtney Hayes is wonderful in Rita's opening scenes — at once speedy, eccentric and matter-of-fact — by the wedding, she's flying through the part too fast and with too little thought. The male-female transformation is particularly problematic. Hayes doesn't seem to have really studied Dell Domnik, who plays the Old Man. In the all-important hotel-room scene with Peter, she doesn't evoke him at all, just gets weird and vaguely mannish. Nor has Domnik paid serious attention to Hayes. Switching personae is an acting challenge that requires humility and skill; the actor has to take on the aura, the reality, of the other person without resorting to cheap mimicry. The fact that neither Hayes nor Domnik really achieves this hurts the production. There's a poignant sadness to Peter's encounter with the Old Man, his yearning for the beloved who both is and isn't with him, but despite my delight in the play, I simply couldn't bring myself to suspend disbelief sufficiently to feel it.
Lucas is the author of Longtime Companion, one of the first films about AIDS. When Prelude to a Kiss opened in New York in 1990 (starring the luminous Mary-Louise Parker, who's currently gracing Showtime's Weeds), critics interpreted it as an oblique commentary on the health crisis that transformed so may virile young partners into old men almost overnight. That's a convincing interpretation, but the play's theme is universal. All of us who've been in love have wondered just what makes this one person among all others so special, particular and dear, how well we know him or her, and how we'll live with the inexorable changes caused by time.
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