The problem with Craig Lucas' "Prelude to a Kiss" at South Coast Repertory isn't that it's a fairy tale. It's that it isn't enough of a fairy tale.
Peter (Mark Arnott) and Rita (Lisa Zane) could have been guests at that end-of-the-weekend dinner party in Lucas' "Blue Window." He's a bit hapless. She's sure enough of herself to be tending bar for a living.
They run into each other in somebody's apartment. Next thing you know, they're in bed. Next thing you know, they're in love.
So far, charming. As in "Blue Window" and Lucas' other SCR hit, "Three Postcards," we're delighted at how well this playwright observes people, especially young people on the lonely side of 30. It's apt that Peter and Rita--opposites who seem to fit--will get married.
Dissolve to the wedding (the sliding panels of Loy Arcenas' setting suggest film transitions). Dissolve to Peter and Rita on their paid-for-by-her-parents honeymoon in Jamaica.
The weather's fantastic. The coconut drinks are incredible, although Rita for some reason has switched to seltzer. Things are fine in the bed department, if not so imaginative as during their courtship.
But something's off. Rita hasn't been the same since the wedding. Not just about seltzer. Peter gets the odd feeling that this isn't the woman he married. He wants the old Rita back-- his version of her.
Or was that a front? Maybe this is the real Rita. In which case, maybe they shouldn't have gotten married.
Enough of the plot. Lucas' new play holds a secret that must not be revealed here. It can be revealed that there is a spine-prickling moment when Peter tells his wife that he has figured out who she really is.
Actor Arnott says the line so quietly that one realizes that the true, withheld subject of the play may be Peter's sanity. At its best "Prelude to a Kiss" keeps the listener in the tantalizing vale of the perhaps.
It's even possible, because the play never runs out of humor, that nothing's wrong at all. What marriage doesn't have start-up problems?
As a metaphor for those problems, "Prelude to a Kiss" hits home. However, Lucas provides an explanation for Peter's doubts. And as it unfolds, the play's magic starts to dissipate.
That's odd, because the explanation involves magic--a kiss that Rita gave to an old man (Frank Hamilton) at her wedding. There's no problem accepting the strange effects of this kiss. By now, Lucas has us disoriented enough to go with the fairy-tale flow.
The problem is understanding why our lovers don't put up a better fight against the spell that they have fallen under. Peter's very mild efforts to release Rita from her imprisonment, and Rita's total lack of effort to free herself, almost make you wonder how badly these two want to be reunited.
If that's what Lucas means to suggest in this parable of modern courtship, he and director Norman Rene should make the point more overtly. If not, his plot needs more energy.
Fairy tales are about effort rewarded, not about the arbitrary broadcast of magic. In "Rapunzel," the prince doesn't shuffle around the bottom of the tower making wry observations about life to the lady in the window. He makes a climb.
If Lucas' play fails to crest, Rene's staging couldn't be better. This production is so slick that you could skate on it, and that's absolutely right for a play so concerned with tidy surfaces and the strange things that might be swimming under them.
When Peter starts to wonder about Rita on their honeymoon, it's partly because of subliminal signals from Walter Hicklin's costumes--that Amazon-woman negligee of Rita's. Rene's actors also convey a wonderful ambiguity, as with Hal Landon Jr. as Rita's father. He too seems a different person when Peter really looks at him.
Who are you, who am I, whom can we trust? Good questions for a play to ask, and as long as "Prelude to a Kiss" keeps to the questioning mode, it's a fascinating piece. But its answers need work.
'PRELUDE TO A KISS' Craig Lucas' play, at South Coast Repertory. Director Norman Rene. Settings Loy Arcenas. Costumes Walker Hicklin. Lighting Peter Maradudin. Sound Serge Ossorguine. Dramaturg John Glore. Production manager Paul Hammond. Stage manager Julie Haber. Assistants Mary Reardon, Rhonda Winger, Jane Masterson. Intern Joel Goldas. Underwritten by American Express. With Roberta Farkas, Mark Arnott, Michael Canavan, Lisa Zane, Anni Long, Art Koustik, Teri Ralston, Hal Landon Jr., John-David Keller, Don Took, Frank Hamilton, Mary Anne McGarry, Lisa Black, Cynthia Blaise, Edgar W. Chambers, Patrick Massoth, Robert Ornellas, Paul J. Read, Catherine Rowe. Plays at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, with Saturday-Sunday matinees at 2:30. Closes Feb. 18. Tickets $18-$25. 655 Town Center Drive; (714) 957-4033.