Craig Lucas' "Prelude to a Kiss" is a small comic fantasy with a big heart.
And by "small," we mean intimate, a tale of true love sidetracked by the oddest of circumstances, what makes the play, originally seen off and then on Broadway in 1990, still glow in the current Roundabout Theatre Company revival is an exceptional cast and the meticulous direction of Daniel Sullivan, He mines not only the work's laughter but its tears.
"Prelude," which opened Thursday at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre, finds the right balance between the two, Lucas, who wrote the book for the lushly romantic "Light in the Piazza," is dealing with another aspect of romance here: reality after the first exhilaration.
The title comes, of course, from the classic Duke Ellington song which opens the show, heard here in a recording by Billie Holiday.
The evening starts giddily - and conventionally - enough, Peter (Alan Tudyk) meets Rita (Annie Parisse) at a party, The conversation is awkward, He's a bit of a nebbish; she's a little kooky, But that doesn't stop the relationship from flourishing.
Before you know it, their wedding day approaches - with all the accompanying anxieties. And with the appearance at the festivities of a shuffling stranger (John Mahoney), an old man who ends up kissing the bride. It's that kiss that turns things upside down.
The young woman and the elderly gentleman exchange souls, which travel from one body to the other. Suddenly, Peter realizes Rita is not the woman he married. And the old man has become very different indeed.
If that sounds a bit too much like an old "Twilight Zone" episode, don't worry. Lucas has more on his mind that a simple sci-fi tale. With a gentle comic touch, he sets out to investigate how well we really know the people to whom we are most connected.
The actors could not be more appealing, and that's saying something since the original off-Broadway cast included Alec Baldwin, Mary-Louise Parker and Barnard Hughes. Tudyk brings a goofy charm to Peter, a self-deprecating man whose bewilderment at what has happened to his new wife propels much of the plot.
Parisse and Mahoney are doing double duty. The actress deftly captures the two sides of Rita, first delightfully off-kilter and then much more gruff as her other personality takes over. Mahoney reverses her predicament, initially bringing a world-weariness to the old man, who we leam is dying of lung cancer, and later, when his persona shifts, projecting a more sprightly hope for the future.
Among the other cast members, James Rebhorn and Robin Bartlett offer additional comic zing as Rita's understandably confused parents.
Santo Loquasto's minimal gliding set, punctuated by a backdrop of twinkling stars, Is as fast-paced as Sullivan's direction.
In the end, what makes "Prelude to a Kiss" reverberate so strongly is its joyous embrace of life, from its very beginning to the end, Sermonizing has never seemed so sweet and unassuming.
For example, there is an amazingly moving speech near the end of the play as Mahoney assesses all the things that go into making up a person's life. It's not a grand statement, but rather a mundane catalog of all the ups, downs and in-betweens.
"As a final reward for all this ... you disappear. No one knows where. So we might as well have a good time while we're here, don't you think?" he concludes, Not a bad philosophy. Totally touching and right on the mark. Sort of like "Prelude to a Kiss" itself.
Peter. Rita. A romance. A marriage. A strange old man. An exchange of souls. A desperate rescue. A love story.
That's the bare-bones version of "Prelude to a Kiss," which opened last night at the American Airlines Theatre, and it tells you all about the play.
But of course there's more. That quickie sketch doesn't account for the magic that can be created when a story goes from the page to the stage.
Unfortunately, the spell cast by the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Craig Lucas' dark fable is one of near-total inertness.
Alan Tudyk ("Serenity") and Annie Parisse ("Law & Order") play the newlyweds Peter and Rita, whose lives are altered when her soul ends up in the body of a sick old man (John Mahoney).
Typically cast in sidekick roles, the young actors take on the star parts. Both are talented and appealing and look better in bathing suits than 99% of the U.S. population.
But neither is so bewitching that we fall for them as quickly and completely as they fall for each other. The director, Daniel Sullivan, hasn't been able to help them find their way.
There are bright spots. Mahoney, after years of sitting in that ugly "Frasier" chair, plays the wizened widower with a new lease on life. His wry grin is delightful.
As Rita's quirky parents, James Rebhorn and Robin Bartlett add moments of sparkle.
When "Prelude to a Kiss" premiered in 1990, it was nominated for a Pulitzer and a best-play Tony and later became a movie with Alec Baldwin, the original Peter, and Meg Ryan, who took on the role of Rita, created by Mary-Louise Parker.
Lucas' play raises provocative ideas about identity, faith and undying love. There's potential to captivate, but this production has as much thrill as a kiss from your old Aunt Fanny.
“For better or for worse,” one of those pretty phrases that glide by in the misty-eyed blur of a traditional marriage ceremony, takes on peculiar, urgent meaning in Craig Lucas’s blue-hued romantic fantasy, “Prelude to a Kiss,” which has returned to haunt Broadway in a moody, touching revival that opened last night at the American Airlines Theater.
Shortly after those famous words are spoken, uniting the young couple played by Alan Tudyk and Annie Parisse, the culminating kiss symbolizing the union of two souls takes place. Shortly after that, said union hits the skids.
Well, what’s new? Many a young marriage folds like a pup tent in a hurricane. But the trouble in the marriage of Peter and Rita is a little more complicated, as those who saw the play in its first incarnation, in 1990, or the subsequent movie version will recall. The nuptial kiss is followed by another, between Rita and a sad-eyed, elderly stranger now played by John Mahoney. This kiss carries a magic charge that upends the lives of all three characters, awakening each to a painful knowledge of the fragility of love — and, paradoxically, of its durability too.
The conceit at the center of the play — the fateful lip lock that causes Rita and the old man to switch souls — might have been used by Mr. Lucas to create a silly sex farce or a sentimental fable about the importance of loving the essence of a human being, not the package it happens to come in. And “Prelude to a Kiss” does mine plenty of humor, and a measure of sweetness too, from Peter’s uncomfortable discovery that the soul of the comely young woman he fell in love with now inhabits the fast-decaying body of an old man.
But Mr. Lucas was writing at the end of a decade in which AIDS had ravaged the gay population. Young men were almost literally turning into old men overnight, as the disease ran its relentless course largely unchecked by medicine. So while it ends as fairy tales tend to, “Prelude to a Kiss” is steeped in the ache of loss and a sorrowful awareness that life’s joys can be as fleeting as its griefs are unavoidable. It is a romantic comedy of an oddly brokenhearted kind.
The new Roundabout Theater Company production, directed with his customary sensitivity by Daniel Sullivan, holds fast to the melancholy of Mr. Lucas’s vision. The lonely yellow glow of windows in strangers’ apartments punctuates Santo Loquasto’s minimalist settings, lighted in nightscape hues by Donald Holder. The exceptionally fine incidental music by John Gromada strikes a wistful note. Even the Duke Ellington song of the title is heard in the heart-sore croon of Billie Holiday, as opposed to the silky purr of Ella Fitzgerald, the version used in the original production.
Mr. Tudyk and Ms. Parisse, both solid stage actors who have dabbled in movies and television (Ms. Parisse as one of those improbably gorgeous assistant district attorneys on “Law & Order”), may not have the glamour of the play’s original stars, then-on-the-rise Mary-Louise Parker and Alec Baldwin. (Timothy Hutton took over the role of Peter when the play moved to Broadway from Circle Repertory, and the perkier Meg Ryan was cast opposite Mr. Baldwin in the movie.) But they both give distinctive, appealing performances that capture the shaky excitement of youth rushing headlong into the potentially treacherous waters of commitment.
Peter and Rita don’t so much meet cute as mate cute, in a series of brisk scenes that show how the ridges and hollows of their personalities fit neatly together. It is when Peter notices, on their tropical honeymoon, that Rita’s beloved quirks seem to have been sanded down that his disorientation begins. Mr. Tudyk’s face, straddling the line between handsome and goofy, signals his growing perplexity with amusing transparency. Ms. Parisse, tremulous with foreboding on Rita’s wedding day, lets weight fill her willowy limbs when a masculine spirit settles in her skin.
Mr. Mahoney, best known for his wry Martin Crane on “Frasier,” is an admirably unsentimental actor whose economy of means works well for him here. The scenes between Mr. Mahoney and Mr. Tudyk, in which the young lovers struggle to renew their intimacy in bizarrely altered circumstances, are wonderfully tender, sad and funny too. Mr. Mahoney has a tasty bit of physical comedy as he tries to fold himself into a chair the way a yoga-limbered young woman would, but neither actor succumbs to a temptation to play up the absurdity. (Nor did Barnard Hughes, who played the old man in the original production.)
Robin Bartlett adds some comic flavoring with a warm but tart turn as Rita’s mother, as does James Rebhorn as her cheerfully oblivious father. Neither seems to notice anything strange about their daughter’s post-nuptial behavior. “You don’t know your own flesh and blood,” Peter complains to her father in anguished exasperation. Dad replies with conciliating ease, “Well, I’m sure you’re right.”
And yet, despite a rash of jokes in which friends and family members reassure Peter that it’s perfectly normal to discover that your lover isn’t really who you thought she was (a colleague says marriage is like “sliding down a banister” that “turns into a razor blade”), “Prelude to a Kiss” affirms a more consoling belief that it is possible for two separate souls to cleave together, bound in true intimacy, through all that life can throw at them, contrary to what statistics and existentialists might argue.
That’s not to say the play ever resembles a talking Valentine’s Day card. Light on the palate as it is, in the manner of a standard romantic comedy, its bleaker reflections on the vicissitudes of experience are what remain with you. Mr. Mahoney’s gentle delivery of a long monologue describing in grim detail the wearying trudge from cradle to grave leaves a heart-rending afterglow. It should speak as powerfully to audiences in our own uncertain era as it did to a population reeling from the decimations of a decade-long epidemic.
The impulse that drew Rita and the old man together in that transforming moment — the urge to escape the itchy prison of their own lives and take refuge in somebody else’s — is felt by everyone at some point. Who has not been seduced by a dream of starting all over again? Or reflected, in a moment of despair, that it would be a relief to have the uncertain future, with all its potential for pain and loss, behind you?
"Prelude to a Kiss,” a little tragicomedy about nothing less than the mystery of life, still has the power to disturb and enchant.
Seventeen years after a couple of gorgeous youngsters named Mary-Louise Parker and Alec Baldwin opened downtown in this loopy and melancholy romance by Craig Lucas, it remains a disarmingly wise fable about the dark magic and cruelty of the body-snatching life cycle.
One can certainly argue whether the world needs this modest revival, which the Roundabout opened last night with John Mahoney - aka Frasier's dad - delicately adjusting the love story to include more about the character known as the Old Man.
For anyone who missed the original Broadway run, the 1992 movie with Meg Ryan and Baldwin, or later stagings around the country, there may still be surprise in the hairpin turns and supernatural twists that Lucas plots with such unpretentious appeal. Even without the original star power and suspense, this modern fairy tale has a few secrets left to share about beauty, rot and the soul-deep implications of "for better or for worse."
The intimate piece feels a bit dwarfed in the large theater. But director Daniel Sullivan, an expert in emotional understatement, resists the temptation to push his actors into a broader style than the play demands. And Mahoney - a Steppenwolf Theatre veteran before TV found him - turns an old guy's fragility into theatrical power.
Before the mystery officially begins, we see him shuffling across a lonely space to play a recording of Ella Fitzgerald singingr "My love is a prelude that never dies my prelude to a kiss."
Peterr played with a pleasant incredulity by Alan Tudykr confides to us that he's attracted to the signs on roller coasters that warn "Ride at Your Own Risk." He likes emotional manipulation the reckless implication that "anything can happen."
Peter who serves as both participant and narrative co-conspirator meets Rita - the likably unpredictable Annie Parisse - at a party. And although both seem like ordinary people in pedestrian jobsr their union takes them on a "what if?" odyssey. It begins with the magical chemistry of new love and takes a sharp turn at their wedding when the old stranger kisses the bride and somehow switches his soul with hers.
More than gender is converted. Mahoney is poignantly befuddled as the old man then acquires an ineffable sensual strength with a young woman inside him. Parisse turns from a moody insomniac bartender with a nihilist streak into a party animal. "How precarious the time is/' says the Old Man in transition. "And how little we realize until it's almost gone."
Robin Bartlett and James Rebhorn have a lovely foolishness as Rita's parents.
The set by Santo Loquasto has a similar unfussy quality: walls framed in midnight bluer rows of city windows above and sliding furniture below. Jane Greenwood's costumes get out of the way of the characters.
In 1990, some pronounced the skin-deep message as an AIDS metaphor. If so it also applies to the less extraordinary ravages of decay on our perceptions of ourselves and one another. "If you're lucky/, the Old Man says sadly, "you get to watch all your loved ones die and then you disappear."
He recommends we have a good time while we're here. "Prelude" remains a fine place to start.
There's an intimate and extremely delicate work bouncing about in the cavernous spaces of Daniel Sullivan's Broadway revival of "Prelude to a Kiss." Written in 1988 at the height of the AIDS crisis, Craig Lucas' romantic fairy tale hinges upon the high-concept Hollywood premise of soul transference but resounds with subtle yet piercing echoes of the ravages of illness and the looming specter of death. It takes a gossamer-light touch to achieve the play's magical balance and coax forth the sorrowful subtext beneath the eccentric fantasy. That touch is the domain here mainly of the wonderful John Mahoney, whose tender performance is the Roundabout production's chief reward.
Some plays are especially sensitive to their surroundings. Commissioned and first produced by South Coast Rep, "Prelude" transferred from Circle Rep's successful Off Broadway staging in 1990 to run a year on Broadway in the cozy Helen Hayes Theater, starring Timothy Hutton (who took over from Alec Baldwin with the move), Mary-Louise Parker and Barnard Hughes.
As has often been the case with Lucas' plays on film, the 1992 feature version muted both the work's tragicomic poetry and its depth of feeling. On the wide stage of the American Airlines Theater, unfolding on Santo Loquasto's slick but impersonal sets, the play again seems emotionally encumbered.
Even when graced with the warm caress of Donald Holder's lighting and John Gromada's dreamy, movie-ish music, the empty expanses around the three key characters often threaten to engulf them. The space issue also makes it more difficult for director Sullivan to disguise the fact that half the play is set-up.
As suggested by the Duke Ellington title song heard in a Billie Holiday recording in the opening minutes, a prelude can be a beautiful foretaste of the fullness to come. That fullness arrives only in the second act when Mahoney's unnamed, ailing old man steps more decisively into the action. But the sweet sadness of his interaction with the young lovers is so acute that the production's earlier uncertainties matter less.
Peter (Alan Tudyk) has a drone job digitally transferring scientific research while Rita (Annie Parisse) is an insomniac bartender. He had an unhappy childhood, she's a fatalistic neurotic. But it's clear all this enchanted couple needs is each other. The charming leads do a nice job conveying the instant sparks and bracing directness of "that blissful, psychotic first flush of love."
Their impulsive rush into marriage appears a mistake when, during their honeymoon in Jamaica, Rita seems suddenly prickly and distant. Peter becomes convinced she's not Rita at all but has "switched channels," tracing the change back to the mysterious old man at their wedding, who asked to kiss the bride.
On the surface, Lucas addresses the whirlwind of romantic love and the giant leap of commitment, acknowledged by open-hearted Peter in his fascination with the roller-coaster sign: Ride at Your Own Risk. The play then goes on intriguingly to explore the surprises that can be in store when initial passion evolves into fuller knowledge of someone.
Most indirectly and affectingly, it reflects upon the capacity for endurance in love tested by age or life-altering illness, when a soul is trapped inside a body no longer recognizable or wanted. "Never to be squandered ... the miracle of another human being," says Peter in a closing scene that succinctly reiterates the supremacy of spiritual over physical love.
Lucas' exquisite writing spins out sentiments that could be treacle in other hands, in a scenario that might just as easily have dissolved into contrived whimsy. But there's an anchoring sincerity that makes you believe in the crazy fantasy.
Much of that rests on Peter's shoulders. Likeable as they are, the stage personalities of both Tudyk and Parisse seem a fraction undersized to fully propel this uneasily inflated production, which no doubt accounts for some of the remoteness of the first act.
But with his sunny, handsome face and relaxed humor, Tudyk makes Peter an appealingly straightforward guy, with the warmth and unguardedness not only to dive right into an all-consuming relationship but to break down the barriers of someone wary of them.
And Parisse pulls a neat post-wedding transformation when her body is taken over by the old man, her speech patterns, mannerisms and physical language shifting into a more masculine gear without resorting to caricature.
As Rita's benignly eccentric parents, James Rebhorn and Robin Bartlett also invigorate their scenes with inventive comic timing.
But it's Mahoney who really captures the haunting emotional transparency of Lucas' play and its lyrical sense of loss. Never pushing for pathos, he lets it flow naturally from a man contemplating his life and his imminent disappearance with both inexorable sadness and acceptance. His scenes with Peter -- including their cathartic kiss -- and his precise, feminine moves as he houses Rita's soul are models of restraint. And in his tear-inducing monologue, Mahoney crucially trusts the words to do their work.
More than a paean to romance, the song that gives the play its title becomes an old man's wistful recognition that life is too short and love too rare to shrink from experience.
A somberly dressed and doddering old man intrudes on a sunny subur ban wedding. Known to neither bride nor groom, he mingles with the guests and then kisses the bride.
It's like a thunderclap on a clear spring morning.
The mysterious old man reels away as if he's had a stroke, then disappears amid the ensuing consternation. Peace is uneasily restored. And the young married couple, seemingly so perfect for one another, goes off on their honeymoon. Or do they?
And therein lies the tale - or the key to it - told by Craig Lucas' mysterious romance "Prelude to a Kiss," most persuasively revived last night by the Roundabout Theatre Company.
It should really be called "Postlude to a Kiss," but that wouldn't really sound as good, would it? In fairness to the playwright, I'm not sure there's all that much more I can tell you about the play without spoiling it.
It's one of those rare plays where, despite all the good and clever writing in the world, the concept is almost inevitably better than the piece itself. If you know the story, you might say, "Wow! What a fantastic idea for a play," and leave it at that.
But since I wouldn't want anyone to miss out on the transmogrifying performances or the staging, let me just ask, "Do you believe in transubstantiation?" and leave it at that.
Daniel Sullivan's direction puts a closer emphasis on the mysterious old man - originally played by the late great Barnard Hughes, and now receiving a perfect performance of agonized befuddlement from the present great John Mahoney, far too long absent from the New York stage.
He wanders aimfully through the play, subtly expressing a disconcerting inner self.
Alan Tudyk as Peter, the puzzled young bridegroom - the role that made a star of Alec Baldwin - is superb. In an offhand manner, he makes credible his basically incredible position by suggesting a conviction that pins down impossibility, deftly suspending any audience disbelief.
He's beautifully matched by the imperturbable and proper duality of Annie Parisse as Rita, his fiancée unwittingly turned monster-wife, and the rest of the cast, led by James Rebhorn and Robin Bartlett, both unerring as Rita's parents, a wealthy dentist and his considerate wife.
They're all lustrously served by Santo Loquasto's cinematic dissolves of a set design, which gives the play a focus lacking in the 1990 original. Nevertheless, even Sullivan's swift-shifting skills can't prevent the conclusion from being something of a letdown, though by that time we should all have been suitably enchanted.
"Prelude to a Kiss" is a fun play but also oddly, unexpectedly, moving. It even has a moral relevant to our times: "Never wish for anything you're not prepared to receive."