Jonathan J. Miner
Sean Langenecker and Katie Mann play newlyweds Peter and Rita.
The formula for romantic comedies is as old as storytelling itself: Boy meets girl; they fall in love; complications arise; boy gets girl back; they live happily ever after. The trope allows us to enjoy the heady feeling of infatuation and affirms the power of true love to conquer all. Craig Lucas’ Tony- and Pulitzer-nominated play Prelude to a Kiss uses the formula to great comic effect in a delightful production at the Bartell, presented by Strollers Theatre through Feb. 18.
There is a fabulous mash-up of contemporary romance and epic fairytale in the script — Peter and Rita’s undeniably modern dating encounters draw us in with fast, smart, overlapping dialogue and familiar new relationship situations, handled with spark and sex by Sean Langenecker and Kate Mann. After an electric six weeks the couple decides to meet the parents and marry.
An old man unknown to the wedding party (the understated and genuine Carl Cawthorne) wanders in to the reception and innocently asks to kiss the bride. In an instant, he and Rita switch spirits — each inhabiting the other’s body. This makes for an awkward honeymoon and a very puzzled groom, who suddenly has nothing in common with the woman he brings to Jamaica.
There is farcical humor in this mismatch of course, and both Mann and Cawthorne do a marvelous job channeling very different personalities. Likewise, Peter’s gradual realization of the switch is both touching and painfully funny; he can’t abide a stranger’s personality in his wife’s hot body, but he also didn’t sign up to love Rita, trapped in the wrinkled body of a terminally ill senior citizen.
While the script provides a nice explanation for the magical switch — it has to do with Rita’s fear of the future and the old man’s longing for the past — the 1988 play also uses the fantastic plot twist to raise more serious questions: What does it matter if the love of Peter’s life inhabits the body of a man or a woman? And what was it like for young same-sex couples in the late ’80s to have one partner suddenly physically fragile, aged and sickened by AIDS?
Overall, the production is elevated by heartfelt performances by the three leads, and blocking by director Erin S. Baal that effectively uses every corner of the Evjue Stage. Unfortunately, the cartoonish characters and bit-laden bit parts that Michael Mejia and Heidi Zepeda play often distract from the main trio. The set, designed by Teresa Sarkela, is an ingenious combination of puzzle pieces rearranged to represent many different locales, but the noise of moving those sections into position at the top of each scene drowns out the actors.
Instead of buying flowers or candy to celebrate Valentine’s Day, take your date to see Prelude to a Kiss. There’s a lot to learn from Langenecker’s charming Peter, who compares love to an unpredictable roller coaster — one that everyone must ride at their own risk.