SHOWING : August 07, 2009 - August 15, 2009
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[REVIEW THIS PRODUCTION]
Wednesday, August 26, 2009 ||
At a wedding a number of years ago, the minister raised more than a few chuckles by telling us grooms usually want the bride to “stay just as she is,” while brides want to change the groom into “what she wants him to be.” Both ambitions are doomed from the start, as people (for the most part) will grow and change in ways totally unexpected and totally surprising, sometimes along “the same path,” sometimes along disappointingly divergent byways.|
This thought is at the core of Craig Lucas’ 1990 play, “Prelude to a Kiss,” in which a new bride literally becomes someone else. Peter and Rita meet at a party, struggle through the awkwardness of new attraction and new love, and marry. At their wedding, an old man, a stranger to them both, kisses the bride. Faster than you can say “McGuffin Goes SyFy,” the two change bodies and Peter is off on a Jamaican honeymoon with an old man who looks like his new wife.
I’ve always liked Craig Lucas’ work, and this play has long been a favorite of mine, so it was with some pleasure that I approached this production by CenterStage North, with my very good friend Pete Borden playing “The Old Man.” Indeed, the production (now closed) had a lot to recommend it – a minimalist set (black curtains and few pieces of furniture, including a large beanbag sofa that screams to be collapsed onto), excellently evocative lighting (applause to Jeff Costello for a job well done), and a surprisingly touching performance by Mr. Borden.
The problem with this particular production was that I didn’t especially believe the relationship at its center. Brandon Lee and Jessica Crow each give nice performances, but, it was as if they were worlds apart as a couple. Their “meet awkward” scene was punctuated by too many long silences, and their scripted “instant attraction” to each other was undercut by their reluctance to actually look at each other, by their total lack of eye contact. I don’t know if this was an actor’s choice to “play shy” or a director’s choice to “cheat front,” but, in either case, it indicated a total lack of chemistry between two characters who supposedly “can’t take their eyes off each other,” whose actions are rooted in a compulsion to “drink in the sight of each other as often as possible.”
Indeed, the same silences that punctuated this scene were repeated throughout the production. Lucas writes very naturalistic, often overlapping dialog, but this show came across as if it were written by Pinter – line – silence – line – silence – line silence. Unfortunately, unlike in Pinter, the silences weren’t laden with subtext and meaning, they were just hesitancies, as if the next line were struggling to get from memory to tongue. This made at least two potentially light and happy scenes come across as inappropriately serious and “meaningful,” and made the evening drag more than was healthy.
This lack of chemistry between the two main characters was also emphasized by the Mr. Lee’s real-life spouse playing the minor role of a co-worker of Peter’s. Their scenes together did have chemistry (no doubt based on the actors’ real-life affection for each other and Jaime Lee’s charm and talent), but they tended to throw the whole story off-balance.
On the other hand, Ms. Crow and Mr. Borden obviously spent a lot of time with each other, learning each other’s mannerisms and patterns of speech, so that when the “switch” came, they were perfectly credible “in each other’s bodies.” This is perhaps the most difficult part of any production of this play (a part the 1992 movie of it got totally wrong), but here, it was compelling and salvaged the second half of the play for me. In particular, their final scene together was moving, the pacing and lines overlapping in true Lucas-ian fashion, and ended everything on a high note for me.
Still, the “chemistry imbalance” of this mounting only shows how important emotional subtext is, how if we don’t believe in the attraction between two characters, it translates into a skeptical approach to their relationship – if the characters don’t seem truly interested in each other, it’s impossible for the audience to be truly interested in their story.
“Prelude to a Kiss” is a well-written play, an acknowledgement that it is personalities rather than appearances that form the true bond between the couples (though I do appreciate it when Peter tells Rita “I miss your face” when she’s “inside” the Old Man). I like how the “switch” is something both characters “want,” how it’s resolved by mutual desires. I like how the supporting characters are fully-formed people, not plot-convenient constructs (and kudos to Ms. Lee, Scott Fant, Kim Bennett and Mylane Wilson for making them interesting). I like how the situation is “pro-gay” without seeming to be gay.
I liked how the leads in this production got “the hard stuff” right, how Mr. Lee charmed us with his story-telling and self-deprecating sense of humor. I liked how Mr. Borden was not afraid to show us Rita’s attraction to Peter, how he showed us his frustration with their situation.
I just wish I had believed the relationship that was the reason for us being there.
Like the bride and groom in the minister’s message, it changed the play in a way that diverged from the path I wanted it to take.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)
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by Elton John (music), Tim Rice (lyrics), and Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, David Henry Hwang (book)
Atlanta Lyric Theatre