Fairy tales enchant us as children. Deceptively simple narratives often contain profound underlying messages. And so, as adults, we suspend our disbelief eagerly when storytelling — on screen, stage or page — incorporates a twist of fairy-tale magic. It offers reassurance, because a “happily ever after” ending is usually guaranteed. When poorly executed, however, these grown-up stories disappoint, in part because they don’t meet the expectations that our well-remembered childhood models create.
Craig Lucas’ play Prelude to a Kiss (1988), currently at Burlington’s Vermont Stage Company, is a dissatisfying attempt to craft a modern fairy tale about love. Despite spirited efforts from VSC’s spunky pair of young leads, and a stylish production design, the show ultimately fails to be more than superficially diverting. Spoiler alert: To analyze what works and what doesn’t about the play and the performances, this review must reveal the entire plot. So read no further if you don’t want to know what happens.
Young Manhattanites Peter and Rita meet at a party, where love instantly casts its spell. A quick, chemistry-fueled courtship of opposites ensues. Peter is optimistic and easygoing, even though cruel parenting drove him from home at age 16, leaving him permanently estranged from his family. Rita, a chronic insomniac, holds a darkly pessimistic view of the world, despite her closeness with her cheery, golf-loving New Jersey parents. Peter proposes marriage almost immediately, and Rita agrees.
The couple lies to Rita’s family about how long they’ve been dating, and their backyard wedding takes place just over two months after their first meeting. During the reception, an Old Man — a stranger no one recognizes — offers the bride his good wishes, and then gives her a long kiss.
Rita becomes unrecognizable to Peter on their Jamaican honeymoon. Her behavior and personality transform themselves completely, and the playwright briefly attempts misdirection about the reasons why. Suddenly staid Rita could reflect the cliché that marriage kills romance and turns fascinating women into nagging housewives. (Trite and sexist.) But Peter eventually realizes that the woman he loves isn’t inside Rita’s body at all; somehow, the Old Man inhabits her.
Umm... ’80s Films for $800, please, Alex? On the Internet Movie Database, matches abound for “body-switching” and “soul-transference” in the plot keyword search. The best stories in this subgenre are both hilarious and touching, such as 1984’s All of Me, in which Steve Martin plays a lawyer forced to share his body with the soul of his wealthy, dying client (Lily Tomlin).
Once the shift happens in Prelude, however, the story plods. The dour honeymoon scenes drag. More significantly, when Rita (trapped inside the Old Man) and Peter rediscover each other, the play blows its chance to make a powerful statement about love, beauty and the human spirit. Does Peter’s emotional bond with Rita trump considerations of physical appearance and even gender?
In the VSC production, the script’s half-hearted look at this question is further undermined by Malachy McCourt’s undistinguished turn as the Old Man. McCourt seems flat when inhabited by Rita, unable to capture her girlish insouciance or conjure her chemistry with Peter. He comes alive, though, in the play’s final moments, when the Old Man’s soul returns to his own body. McCourt vibrates with infinitely more energy playing a dying seventysomething than the nubile bride. What could explain this curious performance from a seasoned vet of Broadway and film? My best guess: the thin script and possibly unclear guidance from director Mark Nash.
As Rita, Haley Rice does a remarkable job portraying both personalities: the animated woman in love, and the old spirit trying to conceal itself in an unfamiliar young form. Her eyes glitter brightly when Rita and Peter connect, but narrow and darken when the Old Man takes over. Craig Maravich, as Peter, shares Rice’s dynamic spark on stage, and they pair believably as bantering, besotted lovers. McCourt and the script don’t give Maravich as much to work with later on, but he gamely tries to maintain his character’s vigor.
Most of the supporting roles are weakly written throwaways. This is a real tragedy, because Nash has cast some of Vermont’s finest: Edgar L. Davis, Ruth Wallman, Paul Ugalde and Lili Gamache. Gamache makes her one scene — as the Old Man’s distressed daughter, Leah — a moving portrait of quiet filial devotion.
With inventive scenic design and cheerful costumes, Jenny C. Fulton actually makes the script feel hipper and edgier than it is. IKEA-inspired blond wood storage shelves, moved around by the actors between scenes, become tables, couches, lounge chairs, a bar and a bed. Nash artfully choreographs the set and prop changes. Less successful is his overall blocking of some scenes. With the audience sitting on all four sides of the stage, attendees frequently find themselves unable to see actors’ expressions for extended periods.
Prelude seems an unworthy choice for such a strong company and cast, regardless of the play’s pedigree of award nominations and critical acclaim. In difficult times, comedy and romance are a balm. After a stellar King Lear for last season’s finale, perhaps going to the Bard for laughs and love would have made more sense. Much Ado About Nothing, for example. Now, that’s a script to make your sides hurt from laughing while your heart smiles.