Payne Leavitt Productions

at the Wellington Theater

This wise and magical play suggests that perhaps the truest test of love is for a lover to recognize the beloved’s soul in the body of another.

It’s not a new trial. Myths and fairy tales teem with transformations that test or prove love: Beauty comes to prize the prince’s soul within the Beast; the Frog King is redeemed by the trust of a king’s daughter; the Witch in Into the Woods gives up her powers, transforming herself into a much younger woman to win back the love of her daughter Rapunzel.

Prelude to a Kiss, Craig Lucas’s Broadway charmer, tenderly updates this ancient dream–and does it without diluting the fairy-tale sense of wonder or the immediacy of its situation: a young couple are changed forever by a mysterious old man who appears at their wedding.

The deceptively simple first act traces the hesitant courtship of Rita and Peter, lovers who stumble from sex into marriage. She’s an ardent socialist; he spent ten years in Amsterdam fleeing an uncaring family. They exchange peeves, pleasures, and dirty fantasies, and without knowing how or when, start to shape their lives around each other.

Lucas beautifully captures the bewilderment of two people who were strangers six months before and now must improvise a shared future–though as Peter says, they’ve never known each other’s pasts. Inevitably they worry whether they’ve found the right person. Peter is troubled when Rita tells him she won’t have children: morbidly aware of the threat of Armageddon and afraid to invest so much love in an unsure future, she thinks it best to have as little to lose as possible. No wonder Peter compares their relationship to a fun-house ride bearing the disclaimer “Ride at your own risk.”

On their wedding day, an old Dutchman–a stranger to everyone there–comes up to kiss the bride; the lights dim, eerie music plays, and Rita imagines she has been kissed by her fairy godfather.

By the second act Rita is no longer the woman Peter married. She charges a $1,500 gold charm bracelet to her parents’ account. An insomniac since age 14, she now sleeps like a baby. She’s plagued by memory lapses and won’t touch booze or salt. Her socialist ideals vanish; social inequities leave her undisturbed. She understands Dutch. She wants to give up tending bar and have Peter support her, and strangest of all, she now wants to have kids. “You’re not you!” Peter cries.

But Rita is not bewitched, she’s been exchanged for someone else: when they kissed, Rita and the old man switched souls. Afraid of the future, Rita had to find out how it feels to have lived so fully that you fear nothing more (ironically, it turns out that that’s not the old man’s situation).

When Peter accuses her of abandoning him, a furious “Rita” returns to her parents. Peter is outraged when they can’t see the changes in their daughter and won’t let him see her. Then he meets the real Rita at the bar where she worked–of course she’s now inside the old man, who will die of cirrhosis and lung cancer in a year. (Now Peter knows why the old man switched bodies with his wife.)

Yet Peter can still see and cherish Rita inside the old man. In the play’s loveliest moment, he kisses “her”–the prelude is over, and the spell has been broken. And when Peter convinces the old man to relinquish Rita’s body, that painful surrender is as magical as the kiss.

Given a less supple writer, Prelude to a Kiss might have dwindled into a whimsical Twilight Zone spin-off. But in the spellbinding second act, Lucas makes his story sing in many parts–as a metaphor for the strangeness of marriage, as a lesson in the uniqueness of personality, and as a mystery that suggests as many scenarios as there are members in the audience. (If nothing else, couples who see this show will look at and listen to each other a lot harder.)

Sheldon Patinkin’s staging treats Lucas’s play with delicacy and grace. The spell is cast from the start by Linda Buchanan’s set: an elegant classical colonnade with a backdrop of imitation marble and billowing curtains that partially conceal a starry scrim. Rita Pietrazek’s dappled lighting effects woo the set like a lover, Frances Maggio’s costumes anchor the characters in the contemporary world, and the music and sound, by Rob Milburn and Larry Shankar, subtly shape emotions–they’re not intended to replace them.

Scott Jaeck and Rengin Altay play Peter and Rita with dead-on directness: they provide solid bearings for characters who will change beyond anything imaginable. Peter carries the weight of the play’s reality, and Jaeck narrates with the spontaneity of lived experience; his unforced astonishment is contagious. Altay’s flat, uninflected delivery (reminiscent of Bernadette Peters’s throwaway style) gives us a frank, no-nonsense Rita; she’s less successful at conveying the old man’s fear of death and his passionate wish for a second chance.

In a career studded with gem performances, Mike Nussbaum has seldom been warmer than in his poignant portrayals of the old man and Rita. Thanks to him, like Peter we too can see Rita in the old man, can see her in Nussbaum’s blend of wide-eyed serenity and wonder–no camp effeminacy here. And when Rita’s soul departs the old man’s body, we feel Nussbaum’s wordless resignation. (Later this month William J. Norris takes the role.)

As Rita’s comically distracted parents, Barbara Harris and Richard Henzel aspire to the depth of storybook illustrations–and their stylized shallowness works as a cunning contrast to the main magic. Imitating Billie Burke (good witch Glenda in the Wizard of Oz) at her most dithering and vaporous, Harris almost makes Rita’s well-intentioned mother dottier than necessary. Janice Saint John, in a cameo as the old man’s daughter, Leah, deftly suggests the familiar world the old man abandoned in the hope of renewing his life.

But at least he’ll die having tasted Rita’s love for Peter.