Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 8, 2007
Prelude to a Kiss by Craig Lucas. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Set design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Original music and sound design by John GromadaJ. Hair and wig design by Tom Watson. Cast: John Mahoney, Annie Parisse, Alan Tudyk, with Robin Bartlett, James Rebhorn, Francois Battiste, Brandon J. Dirden, MacIntyre Dixon, Marceline Hugot, Susan Pellegrino, Matthew Rauch, John Rothman, Karen Walsh.
Time has always been the chief enemy in this play about a whirlwind affair that both simultaneously and improbably spans three months, several decades, and a whole gender, all within two hours. Even when you think you have this living thing all figured out, you’re never guaranteed of what’s coming next, so stop pretending: “Just take things as they come and enjoy them - that’s what life is for,” as one line goes. In other words, life’s a banquet, and most poor... Well, that’s another play for another time.
Regardless, the idea is the same for Peter and Rita (Alan Tudyk and Annie Parisse), whose love and lust at first sight is buoyed by outlooks so opposite they can’t help but attract. Peter aimlessly spends his days converting microfiche records to digital storage media, but has no goal for the future; Rita is a bartender longing to be a graphic designer, but is - as Peter describes - afraid of life. As soon as they realize they need each other, they’re locked in each other’s arms (and beds) in the hopes they’ll never be alone again.
The mechanics of the transformation, as well as its impact on Rita’s parents (James Rebhorn and Robin Bartlett) and the old man’s daughter (Marceline Hugot), interest Lucas less than the finer points of forever as blunted by a foundering “perfect” love. It’s not long after Peter and Rita have professed their undying devotion (at least as undying it gets in these unavoidably cynical times) that distrust sets in and words like “annulment” and “divorce” are uttered in the hush tones once reserved for cancer; separation - of bodies, of souls, of hearts - is akin to death. The play and this production never work better than when they keep that idea in clear sight.
What Prelude to a Kiss is not is a romantic comedy. There’s no shortage of laughs, especially in the first act’s recounting of the awkward Peter and Rita adapting (and trying to convert) the other’s unique life force. But darker territory must also be explored, and Sullivan never finds in the shadows an analog for the colors, the possibilities, and the sheer joy he uncovers in the light.
Tudyk suffers from much the same problem. He’s terrific earlier on, bringing a wry sense of whimsy and a sly sensuality to a role that would seem to require a harder sell (at least judging by originator Alec Baldwin’s performance, opposite Meg Ryan, in the 1992 film version). But he’s not up to the demands of the play’s later, more devastating scenes, when Peter must change from a mock-philosophical sex symbol into a man who understands the universe extends beyond the bounds of his bedroom. Tudyk’s goofy charm and even goofier (if ingratiating) smile never melt away in the cold light of realization that he’s lost the woman he’s married, and he never becomes the serious, more appreciative man he must if we’re to accept that these tribulations have any meaning beyond the surface.
Parisse often seems to be channeling Rita’s creator, Mary-Louise Parker, in all her quirky coldness, without tapping into the compassion and concern for others before herself that ostensibly attract Peter in the first place. The result is a Rita who’s not just unlikeable, which makes Tudyk’s job all the tougher, but isn’t so much afraid of life as afraid of everything. She does, however, excel at tapping into her inner mannishness; she’s far more convincing, in fact, as a dissolving septuagenarian than Mahoney, who carries neither the extinguishing spark of life nor the fear of death that ought to encourage him to fight for living at any cost. (His conversion into a young woman is similarly unbelievable; he recalls Parisse in no discernible ways.)
Neither Hugot nor Matthew Rauch, as Peter’s painfully partnerless pal Taylor, contribute much to the world of agonized wonder in which all the play’s characters live. But Rebhorn and Bartlett emerge as both theatrical and romantic role models, finding warmth and honest humor in their interactions together and with Tudyk and Parisse that give the play heart it never quite finds elsewhere. If it’s not clear they were Peter and Rita once upon a time, they’ve learned in the intervening decades that love is a give-or-take, so you might as well give everything you can until you’re taken away.
Their zest comes closest to realizing Prelude’s aching undertones, and making it more than the cute, mildly insightful date play this production too often resembles. (Even Santo Loquasto’s ever-moving framework set highlights the borders, rather than the center, of existence.) Undeniably of the late 1980s and earliest 1990s (it was produced Off-Broadway in March 1990), the play is less an examination of the expectedly endless nature of love than a meditation on what you do when you know you have no time. As an allegory for AIDS it’s far more powerful, and meaningful, than if it’s about another young couple who comes to understand love only because they’re threatened with its loss.
One imagines Lucas, who did some minimal rewriting for this mounting, could have pointed up connections to more current threats like war or terrorism if he so chose. But he didn’t need to - Prelude to a Kiss stands on its own, and stands high, however it’s viewed. But the straightforward approach of Sullivan and his cast never let it reach for the stars, even if one foot is unavoidably planted in the grave.