Poignant, Socially Aware Comedy on Relationships

PRELUDE TO A KISS Play by Craig Lucas. Directed by Norman Ren'e. Starring Timothy Hutton, Mary-Louise Parker. At the Helen Hayes Theatre. HAVING concluded its sold-out Off Broadway run, ``Prelude to a Kiss'' is now tantalizing and entertaining Broadway audiences. With the exception of Timothy Hutton, who replaced Alec Baldwin, the production retains the original Circle Rep cast. Craig Lucas's wistful, offbeat romantic comedy is in good hands.

With Ella Fitzgerald's performance of the Duke Ellington-Irving Gordon-Irving Mills song to set the mood, ``Prelude to a Kiss'' traces the relationship of Peter (Mr. Hutton) and Rita (Mary-Louise Parker). Casual beginning lead to corporeal fantasies and final resolution.

Peter edits scientific publications. Rita tends bar while waiting for her career as a designer to take off. Their romance proceeds predictably enough until their wedding, a celebration attended by a strange Old Man (Barnard Hughes), whom nobody can identify.

In his subsidiary role as narrator, Peter confides to the audience that, ``on our first full day of being married, she seemed like a different Rita.'' It develops that the Old Man has appropriated Rita's soul (or, at least, her personality). When the newlyweds split up on returning from their Jamaican honeymoon, the Old Man moves in with Peter. Fortunately, Rita's sensible mother (Debra Monk) is determined on a reconciliation. The results may be left to her intervention and Lucas's imagination.

``Prelude to a Kiss'' is slight, sometimes poignant, and often very funny. It is also digressive and socially aware. Norman Ren'e has staged a performance that responds accordingly. Though new to the role of Peter, Mr. Hutton (currently costarring on the screen in ``Q & A'') gives a plausible performance as the smitten and temporarily baffled hero. The winsome Miss Parker never totally loses the spectator's sympathy even when delightful Rita I undergoes the sudden change into not so delightful Rita II. Mr. Hughes is a gently persuasive presence, an enigmatic figure prepared, when called upon, to deliver his own ``seven ages of man'' speech.

The playwright displays once more his penchant for examining relationships from an original and unexpected perspective within a recognizable contemporary context. In this case, the human context is an assortment of middle-American types that include Larry Bryggman's hearty Dr. Boyle (Rita's dad), assorted incidental relatives, and such casuals as L. Peter Callender's amusing Jamaican waiter.

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