When Craig Lucas and Norman Rene get together, good things happen. Since the New York-based pair began collaborating in 1979, Rene has directed Lucas' "Missing Persons," "Reckless," "Three Postcards" and the multiple award-winner "Blue Window." Now comes "Prelude to a Kiss," opening Friday at South Coast Repertory.
"It's about two people who fall in love and get married very quickly, and something magical happens," said Lucas. "It's sort of a modern fairy tale. But (unlike earlier plays), it's more plot-oriented; it moves linearly, from beginning to end. I also wanted to try something different with language. In 'Blue Window' (at SCR and the New Mayfair, 1985-'86) and 'Three Postcards' (SCR, 1987), I was going for a verisimilitude of spoken American English--which doesn't allow for a great deal of eloquence. There are very few people in the United States who can say what they mean. I wanted to have central characters who could pack their sentence with a nuance."
And with realism. In fact, Lucas' female characters are so truthful and sensitively realized, one wonders how they could come from the minds of two men.
"A woman plays the part," Rene, 37, said bluntly. "I don't have the experience of a 70-year-old, nor is my knowledge of being 13 as accurate as an 18-year-old's. I barely remember 10th grade. That's why you hire someone: because they have a point of view. They're going to help you understand it. Craig writes it, I direct it and they perform it."
"All art is the act of imagining," stressed Lucas, 36, who grew up outside Philadelphia and attended Boston University. "I think it's a canard, a way of saying 'them' and 'us.' Gay people do it all the time: 'Straight people don't understand us.' It's a kind of paranoia. No, I'll never be a woman, and there are obvious differences--biological, hormonal and societal--but we're all capable of imagining the other person's point of view. It's the John Simons and Ronald Reagans of the world who fan the flames of 'them' and 'us.' We are all human."
Ironically, the play Lucas had intended to write instead of "Prelude" was about a serial killer.
"I started working on it and didn't have anything to say," he said. "I decided it was the sensational nature of it that first seemed attractive. Also, I'd heard of about five other people who were writing plays about serial killers."
He laughed. "I wanted to do something stark and disturbing, and that was a good way of being stark and disturbing. But in a way, I also didn't want to put that out into the world. I didn't want to create something that was going to make people feel any more frightened about being alive."
Indeed, one of the most consistent aspects of Lucas' work is its life-affirming, embracing quality.
"I think Craig's importance as a writer is that he has a very particular voice, a strong attitude towards people and a strong attitude towards living. I feel very fortunate that I get to interpret his work and say what I want to say through it," said the Rhode Island-born Rene who went to Carnegie Mellon (and, with Lucas, also created "Marry Me a Little," a montage of unaffiliated Stephen Sondheim songs being revived Jan. 29 on SCR's Second Stage).
"In a lot of ways I have to know more about the play than Craig does, because I need a point of view to interpret it," he said. "When we started working together, we clearly defined roles--which I think has been our saving grace. I have total respect for Craig's script, and that's what I interpret. Then an actor is entrusted with the interpretation of that particular role. It's being clear about who's doing what. If you're unhappy with someone, you fire 'em. If you're working with them, you trust 'em."
"The danger is that we like each other so much that sometimes it's harder to say, 'This is what I want,' " Lucas added. "Norman's better about that. He'll be quite vehement when he thinks something's wrong with the script. It's not, 'You might think about. . . .' He's like a dog with a bone when he knows it can be better. A lot of people want to stop working at five o'clock. What I value about Norman is that he'll call: 'Hi, I know it's 11:30 and you're asleep, but. . . .' Actually, it's as fun to sit in a bar and talk about the play-- sometimes --as it is to watch a Mets game or go to a movie. And we have a lot of mutual friends, so we don't always talk about the work."
Spoken about or not, the writing is rarely out of Lucas' thoughts.
"As an artist, most of the time you're working, you're daydreaming," he said. "The trick is to get out of the way of your subconscious brain. Then there's the craft part of it. I like to work, but work means work , and there's a lot of days when you sit in front of that computer screen and think, 'Why would anybody do this to themselves--sit alone in a room, making up voices?' When it happens, I usually try to push through, unless I start to do damage to the good stuff. Then it's time to quit."