"Prelude to a Kiss," by the Yuppie Laureate Craig Lucas, is even more annoying the second time around. Once you know its "surprises," you want to see how the whole thing holds together, and, on the slightest examination, you realize it doesn't.
At the end of the play, for example, the old man who, by kissing a young bride, has gained possession of her body speaks eloquently about wanting to regain control over his decaying body and waning life. Knowing this, you can't help being disgusted at how he uses his reclaimed youth - he buys a costly, vulgar bracelet.
If he is as wise as his second-act speech suggests, why has he behaved so stupidly? Is this supposed to be satiric? Is Lucas suggesting that a penchant for rampant materialism is inevitable? Are we all merely yuppies?
On top of its inconsistencies, it has a repellent glibness, as when the old man defines luck as not being born "in Calcutta, Colombia or the U.S. without money" - true yuppie profundity.
Timothy Hutton is actually better cast than Alec Baldwin as the hero, for the character is a retiring, shy lad. Baldwin brought a sexual charge to the part, almost winking at the audience as if he knew he was being used for his celebrity, his body - but what the heck? Hutton plays it straightforwardly, earnestly, which is less interesting. For a sitcom-oriented audience, happy to get a few laughs, unconcerned about plot logic, it really doesn't matter.
As one might have expected, the highly successful Circle Repertory production of Craig Lucas' imaginative romance of fantasticated love, "Prelude to a Kiss," has moved happily and painlessly to Broadway. It adds luster to the season.
In Norman Rene's original and perfect staging, it is virtually - with the exception of one major cast change - the identical production it was at the Circle Rep, but demands a warm, if brief, Broadway welcome.
This is a dazzling yet gently charming play that seems even better on a second viewing than on first acquaintance. First of all it is enormous fun, and its evasive, nutty poetry has a magic that is all of its own. Rarely, if ever, can the classic boy-meets-girl-loses-etc. story have been more imaginatively or more wittily treated. It is simply bewitching.
For one thing, in what other version does marriage make the girl involuntarily turn into a toad? But I get before myself. Peter (newcomer to the cast, Timothy Hutton) meets Rita (Mary-Louise Parker) and they fall dizzily in love. At their wedding reception an old stranger (Barnard Hughes) turns up, kisses her rather personally, and before you can say "dybbuk" or even "incubus," he has taken over her sweet young body, and left her, mind, soul and heart, marooned in his own doomed carcass, wracked with lung cancer and cirrhosis.
The luckless Peter goes off merrily to his honeymoon with this singularly unpleasant old man, totally unaware of the switch, because it is packaged in the body and health of his sometime beloved.
Slowly what has happened dawns on him - and the tension of the play is largely contained in Peter's realization (just a step or two behind the audience itself) of the truth and whether, or at least how, right can be put to right, and the souls put back in their proper containers.
I'm not sure about the mechanics of the whole process - in fairness we have had a number of movies of late, such as "Big" or "All of Me," where quite similar fantasies placed no lesser strain on credibility - but in the theater it works gloriously.
It also raises very serious and even profound questions about the nature of love. Do we love the package or the packaging, does "for better or for worse" really mean what it says, and what really is love's chemistry?
Hutton is a very different fellow from the more overtly glamorous Alec Baldwin, who initiated the role of Peter. Originally the play found its main focus in Baldwin as narrator/protagonist, whereas Hutton stands back much more, which permits the emphasis to spread over the whole play.
Hutton, shy, bewildered and quietly determined, does a neat if less compelling job than did his predecessor; Parker is as sassy, sexy and smart as ever as Rita; while I felt that Hughes has rather deepened his portrayal of the old man, particularly after that transmogrification that leaves the actor a young woman in everything but shape.
The remainder of the cast, including the stalwart Larry Bryggman and Debra Monk as Rita's parents, is all cheerfully in place, and should have the opportunity of remaining thus for a good long time.
''The world's a really terrible place - it's too precarious,'' says Rita, the young heroine of ''Prelude to a Kiss,'' the Craig Lucas play newly arrived on Broadway. Rita (Mary-Louise Parker), a bartender aspiring to be a graphics designer, lives in a modern city whose ills are all too depressingly recognizable. Crack dealers approach first graders, unspeakable diseases consume the bodies of the young and old, and there is never any escape from ''the constant fear of being blown up.'' As Rita warns Peter (Timothy Hutton), the young man with whom she has found love at first sight, the world is so rotten she couldn't even think of bringing children into it.
Yet two hours of stage time later, Rita has reversed her perspective entirely, and not because the world has changed. In this wonderful play, a comic and affecting fairy tale for and about adults, Mr. Lucas acknowledges much that is defeating about civilization as we now know it, then heroically insists on finding a reason to go on living anyway.
Mr. Lucas's reason - that ''the miracle of another human being'' is ''never to be squandered'' - may sound sentimental, but as dramatized it is not. There's nothing treacly about ''Prelude to a Kiss,'' a play that acknowledges even those modern terrors it leaves unmentioned, like AIDS, by forcing its young lovers to test their bond against the threat of imminent physical decay and death. ''My love is a prelude that never dies,'' sings Ella Fitzgerald in the Duke Ellington song whose nocturnal blues haunts the evening. What this play celebrates, and it's as rare as the moonlight in Ellington's music, is the redemptive power of unselfish love that never dies, of true love that survives transient flesh.
As in any classic fairy tale, Rita and Peter must overcome such terrifying obstacles to seal their union and live happily ever after that their hard-won hope and elation at the final curtain is contagious. It's hard to recall a recent play so suffused with sorrow that sends one home so high; the heady feeling of disorientation that lingers at the denouement, a heightened sensitivity to love and death alike, recalls not only the Grimms but also D. M. Thomas's psychoanalytic fable about the Holocaust, ''The White Hotel,'' that is pointedly Rita and Peter's shared reading.
Given Mr. Lucas's transporting dramaturgy, ''Prelude to a Kiss'' retains much of its spell despite a bumpy transfer from Off Broadway's Circle Repertory Company to its new home at the Helen Hayes. The production's major casting change, the substitution of Mr. Hutton for the Hollywood-contract-bound Alec Baldwin, is far from ideal. While the other acting is, if anything, better than ever, the gifted director, Norman Rene, has also been sloppy in adjusting his fluid staging from an intimate, open space to a larger proscenium house. Loy Arcenas's abstract setting, its fixed blue window at center stage excepted, now looks as heavy as Stonehenge, and Mr. Rene sometimes sets the focal point of the action too remotely within its excessive shadows.
To what extent first-time visitors will be bothered by these shortcomings, I couldn't say. Mr. Hutton is an intelligent, sensitive actor and there's nothing wildly off-key about his portrayal. But he's not, as the dazzling Mr. Baldwin was, a prince. What's missing in his performance is the spellbound romantic generosity of a selfless man who sacrifices everything to his lover when she turns, metaphorically at least, into a frog. Like such past Lucas works as ''Blue Window'' and ''Reckless,'' this one demands that its lost, orphaned protagonist take a head-over-heels psychic leap into ''the wild blue'' on his spiritual journey to rebirth. The self-conscious, reserved Mr. Hutton never does plunge into that courageous emotional free fall.
The other stars do everything conceivable to mask this void. The change in partners has in no way dulled the airiness of Ms. Parker's lovely Rita, whose big eyes, floating hands and broad, giggly grin imbue her every line and silence with the aura of erotic expectation, likened by Peter to an ''extra push of color.'' As the aged, dying widower who, through the play's pivotal fairy-tale kiss, becomes the unlikely repository of Rita's soul, Barnard Hughes gives ''Prelude'' its most twinkling comedy and its most touching specter of mortality. His glassy-eyed Irish mournfulness adds a Beckettian lilt to a soliloquy in which he describes life as a long series of abandonments by loved ones that leads only to one's own final mysterious disappearance to ''nobody knows where.''
Under Mr. Rene's sensitive hand, the supporting performances also remain sharp: Larry Bryggman and Debra Monk as Rita's slightly off-center suburban parents, Joyce Reehling as a middle-aged daughter in her own rending confrontation with familial grief and John Dossett as Peter's smart-aleck best friend. Reflecting his longtime collaboration with Mr. Lucas, Mr. Rene orchestrates the entire ensemble to serve the delicate chemistry of a play exquisitely poised between reality and fantasy, anguish and romance.
Nothing in ''Prelude to a Kiss'' is as simple as the director and author make it look. While Act I recounts the courtship, marriage and Caribbean honeymoon of Peter and Rita in the hip terms of contemporary, Manhattan-dry romantic comedy, the laughs never deflate the passion of lovers who are not joking when they exchange sentiments like ''I would really, really like to see you with all your clothes off and stuff like that.'' Meanwhile, the baroque storyteller's diction of Peter's narration - ''That night everything was miraculously restored,'' goes one typical line - helps prepare the audience for its own leap into fantastical plot twists that are no less enchanting for taking place in such prosaic settings as Englewood Cliffs, N.J., and are no less moving for involving such surreal events as a chaste heterosexual love affair between two men.
By the time the laughter subsides, at least temporarily, in Act II, ''Prelude to a Kiss'' has deftly locked its audience with its characters into what Peter describes as ''one of those dreams in which you keep telling yourself 'Hang on!' '' because you know that sooner or later you will have to wake up. And so you do. But Mr. Lucas's revivifying dream of love, as beautiful as it is miraculous in these precarious nights, hangs on.