Bait and Switch
Action Theatre flies with a New York fairy tale
By Richard Lord
Another one of those things in the theatre world that continues to baffle me is the high esteem in which many people, including esteemed critics, hold - or held - Craig Lucas’ Prelude To A Kiss. I mean, this easily digested confection somehow managed to snare Obie and Outer Critics Circle Awards, as well as Tony and Drama Desk nominations.
This Prelude is actually a rather pleasant mediocrity, a modern-day fairy tale that skims lightly over the surface of assorted human relationships, including those of man-woman, parent-child, and strangers who impose themselves on others. Oh yes - the loss of loved ones also gets a good look. The piece has precious little in the way of new insights to offer us about any of these matters, however, and even if playwright Craig Lucas festoons his play with quirky humour, none of it is that strong. Some of it is, indeed, out-and-out lame. (In a peak fit of pique, one of the two central characters lays into the other by blurting out, “You could fuck up a wet dream!” Oh please: Big Apple vitriol is usually much sharper than that.)
Prelude is set in the hip, semi-Alternative New York Scene of the late Eighties, where Peter and Rita meet at a party. Amidst the swirls of idle chatter and ego-blaring all around them, the pair immediately connect and arrange to meet again. That next meeting is in one of those Scene-stream watering holes, where Rita works as a bartender while trying to land a job in her ‘real field’ - as a graphics designer. (Though she is too knotted up with self-doubts to show around her portfolio.)
Peter, meanwhile, works as the manager of a microfiche department at a company that puts out scientific publications. He arrived there by way of Europe, to which he had escaped as an adolescent from a family with a severe love deficit. Rita grew up in suburban New York, nurtured by affluent parents who indulged her in many ways, including her flirtations with parlour socialism. In other words, the two make a perfect New York Eighties couple.
Somewhere around here, playwright Lucas decides to inject some gravitas into his confection. Not only do we hear Peter’s pungent account of his loveless childhood, but Rita adds her strong doubts about bringing children into the frightening world she sees around here. Some commentators have taken these insertions as evidence of the play’s underlying seriousness of purpose; the fluff stuff, these pundits contend, are there to sweeten up the bitterness a bit. I actually see it as just the opposite: I think the standard-issue angst Rita utters and Peter’s off-the-rack unhappy childhood have been hauled in to lend a certain timbre or bitterness so that the play’s essential sweetness does not get too cloying. And, admittedly, those grafts of gravitas do help out a bit in that regard.
Carrying on: As this is New York, Rita and Peter end up very quickly in bed. But this liaison is more than your throwaway quick fling: realising that they’ve both met their true soulmates, the couple decides to make it permanent. They even decide to marry quickly. (So atypical for the Eighties Scene in New York; this must be true love.)
While this is a modern fairy tale, marriage does not lead the couple directly to the “lived-happily-ever-after” track. No, a funny thing happens to them on their way to eternal bliss: at the wedding reception, a strange old man appears, asks to kiss the bride, and then somehow manages to switch bodies with lovely Rita. (That is probably why mothers always tell their daughters not to kiss strange old men on their wedding nights: those old codgers have this penchant for switching bodies right there in the middle of a smooch.)
The newly wedded couple then heads off to the Caribbean for their honeymoon, which is where Peter discovers there is something quite wrong with the Rita he is gone there with. She is no longer the quirky but utterly loveable woman he went to the altar with. Indeed, now she is more like an old man given to sudden spurts of irritability, incomprehension, and insensitivity. (But not, fortunately, incontinence - that would have given away the secret much too soon.)
Peter, being highly intelligent, quickly figures out in Act Two what has happened, just as his marriage appears to be quickly unraveling. The reconstituted Rita moves out, and divorce seems imminent. Then, Peter drops in at their old haunt, the bar, and meets up with Rita in her new body - that of an aging man dying of lung cancer. This new casing tests Peter’s love for Rita and the depth of his wedding vows. He passes the tests in typical fairy-tale prince fashion, and then the decrepit Rita and Peter set off to find this interloper, a Mr Julius Becker, who inhabits Rita’s body. Prelude fully earns its fairy-tale wings when the unlikely pair is reunited and the souls switched back to their original bodies. All the principles are now wiser and better for the strange experience, and Rita and Peter head off for a life of undying love, already tested and proven in a most demanding way.
(By the way, we never learn how Becker was able to pull off that body-switch. There is no mention of evil witches or magic potions, not even portable gamma-ray fields. We just have to trust Craig Lucas on this one.)
Action Theatre, which occasionally puts on such light, fluffy material in high style, was probably the best theatre company in Singapore to revive Prelude To A Kiss. And its version, like the script itself, was both mildly quirky and partly successful.
Director Krishin Jit elected to go with a fluid, easily moveable production, which, on the spacious Victoria Theatre stage, worked on to keep that sense of lightness essential to the play. Presumably, Jit had read about the original Broadway production and how its heavy, clunky set had weighed things down.
The Action set featured one large rotunda, with a smaller circle within, set off by three curtains at the back. This allowed for the mobility and quick scene changes the script calls for. For example, when Rita and Peter head off on their Jamaican honeymoon, the resort is suggested by a blue backdrop with wavy yellow lines, gussied up by a curved burlap and wood plank hanging down: sprightly and effective, even if a bit IKEA Caribbean.
Good staging was a hallmark of this production. A key bed scene early in the relationship was set in a vertical bed, allowing the couple’s conversation and their reactions to be fully appreciated by the audience. The wedding scene, too, was well staged, a fitting visual confection, all in white. Even the beard of one of the guests was powdered white for this bit - and it worked!
However, not all the directorial or set designer decisions were admirable. This production decided to call the company where Peter works as manager of a microfiche department Microfiche Inc., a clear lapse of inspiration. Also, a colleague of Rita’s at the bar sported a pirate’s patch over one eye. Hmm. This seemed more like an attempt to hide the actors’ doubling up in their roles than any grasp of the New York Scene of the Eighties or comment thereon. Also, the old soul-sucking gentleman’s daughter appeared for a climatic scene in an ankle-length Indian dress. An interesting choice, but what was it supposed to connote? Nothing in the script or in this production lent any sense to this choice. For that matter, the Rita’s mother’s costumes were not appropriate to an upper middle-class matron, however ditsy she might be.
The performances were also more often mixed than inspired. Rodney Oliveiro would seem to have been a good choice as Peter, except that the deft, light touch this character occasionally needs is not Oliveiro’s strong suit. For instance, in recounting his unhappy early family life to Rita, Rodney over-dramatises. The American way would have been to handle it with irony.
Melody Chen was also off-key in capturing that sweet-and-sour American smart aleck’s tone Rita requires, as well as in giving some words a ringingly non-American pronunciation. (For one thing, in the American idiom, the verb form of ‘attributes’ puts the stress on the second syllable.) Both leads, especially Oliveiro, proved better in handling the play’s more serious moments. (Rodney’s demeanour at the end of Act One, when the honeymooning groom ponders the sea change that has overtaken his bride, was a fine example. Here, Oliveiro deftly let us know there was deep trouble in paradise and that he was at a loss on where to go next.)
One could say that the two leads capture the hearts of their characters, but miss many of the surface aspects that gave them their New York tenor. But as the heart is, in fact, the heart of this play, the two performances should be judged, on balance, as minor successes.
At Julius Becker’s first appearances, I wondered why directors persist in casting Hossan Leong as old men. (Especially after the letdown of his elderly servant in Toy Factory’s The Morning People two years back.) Physically, Hossan is not at all believable as an old man, especially one succumbing to lung cancer and cirrhosis. He moves much too spryly, only every so often remembering to shuffle in tempo with his infirmities. Indeed, his whole demeanour is off by a few decades. Actually, Hossan Leong, actor, is still much, much better suited to the Singapore Boy persona he has so successfully played here.
Having said that, one is forced to admit that in some ways Leong gave the best performance in the show. Perhaps because of his long experience with stand-up comedy, Leong handled his lines quite admirably. Using pinpoint timing and knowing intonation, Hossan tapped all the veins of humour, especially the dark humour, Craig Lucas had set in the part. At the same time, Leong could be touching as both the hapless Rita trapped in an old man’s body and Becker himself unhappily trapped in that same ‘dying animal’. Most importantly, he managed to be touching without ever getting maudlin.
The supporting performances were also up-and-down in their success levels. Gerald Chew’s turned in a finely mannered performance as Rita’s father, making the man both irritating and likeable. A nice trick and fitting for this role. However, as Rita’s mother, Koh Chieng Mun only intermittently hit the right notes. At times, she fell back on the tired tricks of Singaporean sitcoms, wherein she has her roots, and those tricks were of no help to this role. However, she did reach the proper depths in the more serious moments and, overall, her performance was at least adequate.
The very small support roles were handled commendably by an ensemble of eight, and did not leave any gaps in the production. Worthy of individual mention here were Candice de Rozario as Julius Becker’s daughter (as disturbed by her father’s sudden transformation as Peter is with his wife’s) and Kevin Murphy as Peter’s close friend, Taylor.
I have heard of productions of this play that make you overlook all the script’s shortcomings. This Action Theatre production was not one of those but, overall, it did make this Singaporean edition of Prelude To A Kiss a fairly enjoyable experience. A bittersweet confection nicely served up, if you will.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 4 Jul 2004