Thursday, March 29, 2007

Kiss and tell

The conceit of Craig Lucas's Prelude to a Kiss -- an old man and a young bride switch bodies -- is really pretty dumb; it seems like reviewers are contractually obligated to describe it as a (fractured/urban/modern/adult) "fairy tale," but anybody who goes to see this play with that description in mind is bound to be disappointed, because the magic-kiss conceit isn't really the point. It's more of an excuse for Lucas to spin a delicate comedy out of heavy thematic threads: the everyday magic of romantic love, the joys and perils of being embodied, the dangers of commitment, the lessons the young and old can learn from each other and the generational gulfs that prevent us from learning those lessons, etc.

The current Roundabout Broadway production of Prelude doesn't quite manage to find the enchantment in the ordinary romance that begins the show, and so it gets off to a too-slow start. But once they get comfortable together, Alan Tudyk and Annie Parisse are both pretty darn adorable, and Parisse builds the character of Rita just solidly enough before the big kiss to make everything that comes afterward pay off. She and John Mahoney turn in fine performances in Act Two, closely observed and admirably restrained, amusing but never reaching for laughs at the expense of the play. That, after all, is where the real magic comes in -- not in the thin conceit or its equally thin resolution, but in the way the actors allow the switch to illuminate their performances. The supporting cast is also solid, especially Robin Bartlett (Debbie from Mad About You!) as Rita's mom, Mrs. Boyle, and the sets and lighting are fine and unobtrusive (except for a few noisy moving pieces). If Lucas really wanted it to be set in "the present," he could and should have done a better job updating the discussions of Peter's work for the digital age. But overall, if I wasn't completely swept away, I was certainly charmed.

I don't think I'll be going back to the movie after all, because I can guess now why I hated it so much the first time around (besides the unctuous presence of Alec Baldwin). Zany body-swapping screwball comedies are a dime a dozen, but Prelude is something much more delicate than that, and its magic has everything to do with the magic of theatre. If you're smart, though, you'll avoid seeing the Wednesday matinee, when the magic of live theatre may be somewhat obscured by the makeup of the audience. Below me, in the orchestra: old people there primarily to see John Mahoney, a.k.a. The Dad from Frasier. Did they applaud when he first crossed the stage? Oh yes, they did. Were they confused to discover that he wasn't really in the first half of the play? Most likely they were; happily I was in the cheap seats, so I can't confirm. Did they bother to silence their cell phones? What do you think? Meanwhile, behind me in the mezzanine: school groups of teenagers, maybe 8th- or 9th-graders, who tittered every time anybody looked like they might kiss. I don't know who thought the show would be a good match for them -- it's not exactly inappropriate, content-wise, but it's certainly over their heads, maturity-wise, and they (or at least a few of the boys) proved it by responding as though they were watching an episode of Moesha. Perhaps their teacher -- who, I noticed, addressed them before the show as though they were mentally challenged 6-year-olds, which didn't make me optimistic about how well they would behave -- was fooled by the "fairy tale" bill of sale, but I think they would have been happier, or at least less disruptive, at a matinee of Beauty and the Beast.

On the other hand, I'd rather see a group of kids attend a good show than a lousy one, and at least a few seemed to get something out of it. As I was leaving (and glaring, along with most of the other adults in the mezz, in the direction of these kids and their dippy teacher), I overheard a conversation between a couple of old ladies and a couple of teenage girls. "How did you enjoy the show?" the old ladies asked. "I loved it!" said one of the girls. "Oh, really? Then maybe you can explain it to us! I don't think I got it," one of the ladies admitted cheerfully. I rolled my eyes at this -- lady, it's not Beckett -- and didn't stay to hear what the teenagers thought it was all about, but I was happy to see that this play in particular had inspired intergenerational discussion. The old ladies didn't think they "got it," but I suspect maybe they did.

Since I complained at length about the lousy job the Roundabout did in renovating Studio 54, I should here note that they've done far better with the mezzanine of the lyrically named American Airlines Theatre. There are no bad sightlines, from what I could tell, and the seats are numbered right on the actual seat, as opposed to on the armrest (which is just asking for trouble). They are also reasonably wide, with plenty of leg room. That turns out to be vital, because there is no center aisle, so you're guaranteed to have people climbing over you to get to their seats. Still, not a bad experience, as mezz seats go.

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