Perhaps time hasn't been kind to Prelude to a Kiss. Or perhaps director Peter DuBois hasn't. Either way, the Huntington stumbles slightly with its revival of Craig Lucas's AIDS-era parable (which runs through June 13). Under the sitcommy direction of DuBois, what seemed poignant in 1988 seems - well, slightly forced, and just plain odd, in 2010.
Back then, the central piece of fabulism in the play - the magical kiss by which the souls of a dying old man and a young bride trade places (at left) - seemed like a touchingly off-kilter metaphor for the transformation that so many young gay men were going through: they were suddenly withering into shadows of their former selves, turning partners and lovers into caregivers desperate to connect to the young souls trapped in those dying bodies. But even then, it was worth noting that Prelude to a Kiss didn't waste too much breath on that sad situation; Lucas included a scene or two in which unhappy husband Peter poignantly tended to the elderly (male) body of bride Rita, but for the most part, the play was concerned with his desperate attempts to magically remedy the situation. Indeed, the script has its most kick not in its Freaky-Friday-meets-Longtime-Companion moments, but rather when it plays like a long-form Twilight Zone episode, complete with cries like "Wait a minute - YOU"RE NOT RITA!!!"
At any rate, if Lucas's conceit is to work, it can only work through actors who convey an unexpected soufulness - or a least a soulmate-ness - through their quirky, cable-TV-level banter. But at the Huntington, director DuBois has cast a nice but average Joe and Jane (Brian Sgambati and Cassie Beck) as his star-crossed, or rather kiss-crossed, couple, and we struggle to see what's so special about their not-particularly-electric chemistry, or, to be blunt, what's so individual about Beck's Rita at all. Beck is clearly a snappy comedienne, and she has a friendly presence - but when she's actually somebody else, she doesn't seem all that different; if her body's new occupant didn't slip up so often on her life trivia, you kind of think he might have gotten away with the whole scam. As for the romantic charge that should by all rights have gone missing from Rita & Pita's love - well, to be honest, it never really surfaced to begin with, even though its existence must be what sparked their whirlwind courtship.
This turns Prelude to a Kiss into kind of a head-scratcher - and its revival is likewise a bit of a puzzle; was anyone crying out for new productions of Craig Lucas? We just got Reckless from SpeakEasy last winter - but taken together, these stagings suggest to me that it's no surprise the playwright's reputation has faded as the AIDS crisis (which served as text or subtext to his biggest hits) has receded in the public mind. Yes, of course, AIDS is still with us - in fact, its incidence has been increasing of late. What drives the resonance of Kiss, however, is the physical decline associated with AIDS - which today is far better controlled than it was in the eighties, however tragically prevalent the disease may be. Lucas does have a deeper interest in questions of spiritual transference and mystical flux - but if anything, the SpeakEasy production of Reckless, imperfect as it was, drew out this subtext better than DuBois does here.
Still, there are good moments to savor here and there. Brian Sgambati grows more affecting as Peter, and Nancy E. Carroll (just back from Broadway!) and Michael Hammond wittily tiptoe up to the edge of caricature as Rita's clueless parents, without going over that edge. As the elderly gent who discovers himself unexpectedly going down the aisle, MacIntyre Dixon finds a subtle comedy in his under-written scenes - but again, seems to miss whatever elusive mystical essence Rita brings with her into his own dying frame. In various supporting parts, local stars Timothy John Smith, Jason Bowen, Cheryl McMahon and Ken Cheeseman acquit themselves well; let's hope we see them all on the Huntington stage again, and soon. Although I hope next time they won't be quite so often on the run: the show feels slightly over-designed (as 'cinema,' apparently), and some part of that over-design is always rolling on or off. But at least the rumble of the set-pieces distracts you a bit from the thinness of the script.