Overworked quirkiness


Olney -- In "Prelude to a Kiss," Craig Lucas tests the limits of the marriage vow: "In sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part." But the play is more than a romantic tear-jerker; it's an amusingly inventive look at the larger question: How well can you truly know the person you marry -- or, for that matter, how well can you ever know another person?

Lucas presents these issues in a manner that is as quirky as it is fascinating. However, at Olney Theatre, where "Prelude" is receiving its area premiere, director Jim Petosa stretches the limits of quirkiness and detracts from the fascination.

This is due in large part to a peculiar design concept that takes a contemporary American comedy and overloads it with Japanese motifs including sliding screens and, at one point, even kimonos. Perhaps the influence of an ancient culture rich in legend and myth was intended to emphasize the fairy-tale and fantasy aspects of the script. But then, why use the new wave music of the British group the Cocteau Twins as an incidental score -- particularly since the play's title comes from a Duke Ellington song?

Whatever the intention, the result doesn't enhance the fantasy, it adds to the confusion -- and the playwright has built enough of that into the script as it is. In fact, in fairy-tale terms "Prelude" might be described as a love story in which confusion-ever-after threatens to replace happily-ever-after.

The play starts out as a traditional love story -- boy meets girl; they fall in love and get married. Then at the wedding, a mysterious old man kisses the bride, and afterward she literally doesn't seem to be herself. Has marriage changed her? That's what everyone tells the increasingly distraught bridegroom. After all, she looks the same. But he fell in love with something deeper than looks, and his perky wife is suddenly behaving like, well, an old man.

This is delightfully theatrical stuff -- part mystery, part romance, part screwball comedy. (A few decades ago, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn would have been great in the movie; as it is, it's due out this summer with the original off-Broadway leads -- Alec Baldwin and Mary-Louise Parker).

Olney's production overdoes the screwball element. Until the wedding, the happy couple, played by Leland Orser and Valerie Leonard, are so giggly, you almost want something bad to happen to them, just so they'll calm down. As the Old Man, Irv Ziff turns out to have an especially tricky assignment, and for the most part, he handles it with agility. The rest of the cast exists primarily as an example of normalcy, and they're all up to the task, particularly Mary Ellen Nester and James Slaughter, as the bride's mom and dad.

In "Prelude to a Kiss," two young people with their lives in front of them suddenly confront the unknown, and possibly death. It's no coincidence that Lucas was also the screenwriter of another look at young people facing death -- the wrenching movie about AIDS, "Longtime Companion." "Prelude" encourages us to take a chance on love, to trust our hearts and most of all -- to savor life. At Olney, director Petosa makes one last misguided choice by sugar-coating this already uplifting ending. But even odd and overstated staging cannot disguise the message of this imaginative work.

"Prelude to a Kiss" continues at Olney Theatre through May 24; call (301) 924-3400.

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