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.