It's hard to believe that 17 years have passed since Craig Lucas' fairy tale-tinged romance Prelude to a Kiss debuted Off Broadway. In both the original staging and the Broadway production that followed, Mary-Louise Parker gave a magnetic performance. (She didn't get to work her magic in the 1992 movie, which starred the preternaturally perky Meg Ryan opposite Parker's original costar, Alec Baldwin.) In the Roundabout's current revival, Annie Parisse has the daunting task of following in Parker's footsteps. Parisse has some fine moments, as does Alan Tudyk as her leading man, but ultimately she isn't charismatic enough in the role. Luckily, this Prelude, sensitively directed by Daniel Sullivan, has an ace up its sleeve: veteran actor John Mahoney.
Best known as Kelsey Grammer's dad on Frasier, Mahoney shows that he can be just as winning on stage as he was for 11 seasons on the sitcom. (That won't surprise anyone who saw Mahoney in John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves back in 1986.) In Prelude to a Kiss, Mahoney plays a mysterious Old Man who complicates things for a happy young couple-Peter (Tudyk) and Rita (Parisse). The two meet at a party and instantly connect. "Like that the spell was cast," Peter tells the audience. Rita is an insomniac bartender, and Peter works in publishing. They're attractive, smart, and share a taste for Molson. Within weeks Rita is taking Peter home to meet her parents (James Rebhorn and Robin Bartlett). Within months they're getting married.
On the day of their wedding in suburban New Jersey, Rita is a nervous wreck. Among other things she worries that Peter won't still love her when she's old. It turns out she has reason to worry. The uninvited Old Man shows up, and after he kisses Rita she isn't the same. During the honeymoon, Peter feels like he's married a stranger. What's happened to Rita? She looks the same, but now she sleeps all the time and has forgotten her Socialist leanings. She even buys tacky, overpriced jewelry. It seems that she and the Old Man inexplicably swapped souls when they kissed.
Parisse, previously seen at the Roundabout in Misalliance,handles Rita's subtle transformation well. She finds laughs during the honeymoon section and improves as the play goes along. But Parisse could loosen up in the opening scenes and add intensity during the heartfelt finale. Tudyk, a comic actor whose Broadway credits include the dud Epic Proportions and a stint in Spamalot is engaging as the easy-to-root-for Peter. Rebhorn and Bartlett provide solid support. But it's Mahoney (in the role originated by the wonderful Barnard Hughes) who steals the show, despite the fact that he doesn't do much in the first act. The actor even delivers sentimental dialogue like "How precious the time is" with a light touch.
Along with a far-fetched plot, Lucas' romantic comedy contains plenty of such corny lines. Somehow the sweet story and poetic language never become cloying, however. Perhaps that's because the playwright nimbly inserts a moral about aging and a metaphor about AIDS (though many in the audience will probably miss the latter, since the disease is less in the news now and isn't mentioned in the play).
Prelude to a Kiss is named for a lovely Duke Ellington song we hear early on, so it's appropriate that John Gromada's incidental music reinforces the magical tone. Santo Loquasto's set, on the other hand, looks too sterile. But thanks in part to Sullivan's fine direction, this revival does justice to Lucas' touching fairy tale. And let's hope we see more of the marvelous Mahoney in upcoming Broadway seasons.