Critics and audiences use the word "magic" to describe that joyous jolt that occurs at the theatre now and then, yet in relatively few plays is the supernatural central to the action. Not only does Craig Lucas' Prelude to a Kiss demand we believe in the power of magic, but Roundabout Theatre Company's revival offers many such "magic" moments.
Originally produced on Broadway in 1990 and made into a film two years later, Lucas' love story is not the love story you think it is, at least at first. Handsome, level-headed Peter (Alan Tudyk) meets adorable, self-doubting Rita (Annie Parisse) at a party. She may be an insecure insomniac bartender with dreams of graphic designing, and he may be a microfiche digitizer who healed himself of the wounds of his dysfunctional family, but as a couple their strong connection is formed quickly and quite normally before our eyes. Peter narrates — including the moment just before their wedding vows — and when an odd old man appears (John Mahoney, in great form) asking to kiss the bride, there's a negative charge to the air. No wonder: Following their kiss, everything is changed.
Yet Prelude isn't just a matter of Lucas explaining, in typically absurd style, how one kiss instigates an interchange of the souls of Rita and the old man, or making a madcap riff on the tricky nature of genuine love. Tudyk and Parisse bestow such dimension and compassion on their characters that the play begs us — subconsciously, at least — to consider whether we can ever truly know the people we fall in love with. That increasingly fearful, desperate, flabbergasted expression on Tudyk's face as Peter slowly begins realizing that the Rita he married isn't the Rita he's honeymooning with not only demonstrates the inspiration behind Lucas' fine playwriting, but also the emotionally satisfying journey the playwright asks that we take with his play, for which credit should also be shared here with director Daniel Sullivan. Tudyk's performance is perfectly calibrated with that of Parisse, who forges her two distinct personas — one for fragile Rita, one for the old man who inhabits Rita's body — with clarity and precision.
Two hearts clearly beat in Sullivan's production: the one that Peter and Rita share as soul mates torn apart by an absurd supernatural soul swap, and the one belonging to the old man, played by Mahoney with such invention, gusto, and enveloping warmth that once you figure out what motivated that fateful kiss — it does take time to be explained — you're heartbroken, amused, and wondering how Lucas will write himself out of his pickle of a plot. Minor characters will play a role in this, none more vividly in Sullivan's sleek production (scenery by Santo Loquasto, costumes by Jane Greenwood, lighting by Donald Holder) than Rita's dotty parents, Dr. Boyle (a sardonic James Rebhorn) and Mrs. Boyle (a quirkily winning Robin Bartlett).
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., NYC. March 8-April 29. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., and Sun., 2 p.m. (212) 719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org. Casting by Jim Carnahan and Mele Nagler.