PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Prelude to a Kiss — The Robber Bride

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12 Mar 2007

From Top: Annie Parisse; Alan Tudyk; Director Daniel Sullivan; John Mahoney; Playwright Craig Lucas, Karen Walsh and Brandon J. Dirden; Matthew Rauch and Francois Battiste; Sam Waterston; Jeff Daniels; Adam Rapp and Paul Sparks; Cynthia Nixon.
From Top: Annie Parisse; Alan Tudyk; Director Daniel Sullivan; John Mahoney; Playwright Craig Lucas, Karen Walsh and Brandon J. Dirden; Matthew Rauch and Francois Battiste; Sam Waterston; Jeff Daniels; Adam Rapp and Paul Sparks; Cynthia Nixon.
Photo by Aubrey Reuben
Prelude to a Kiss, which began its Roundabout revival March 8 at the American Airlines Theatre, is Craig Lucas' cautionary tragicomedy on the danger and contagion of kissing.

Indeed, he carries it to a supernatural, body-switching, soul-snatching extreme: En route to his own funeral, a creaky wedding-crasher (John Mahoney) shuffles forth to kiss the bride (Annie Parisse), and right away, in mid-honeymoon, the groom (Alan Tudyk) realizes he has married another person. What's so unusual about that, you ask? Well, in this special case — despite the comely packaging — she exhibits the graceless crankiness reserved for the very old and has abruptly given up booze, salt and gainful employment.

Lucas wrote this play — his best-known work — in 1990 when the world was entering the day of AIDS and young men were turning wizened and wasting away. One fatality was Norman Rene, who directed the play and its film version and two other Lucas scripts (Reckless and the first film to address the disease directly, "Longtime Companion").

AIDS is sadly still with us, but it is interesting to sift through the play 17 years from the frontlines and see what it says about the impermanence of relationships. Tudyk's vaguely gooney groom gives the piece a certain eccentric-comic sensibility, but its melancholy is still intact, underscored at the outset by Billie Holiday's aching rendition of the title tune.

Roundabout's artistic director, Todd Haimes, said that he had two big reasons for wanting to revive this work: "Because I like the play and Dan Sullivan wanted to do it."

Sullivan came up with a delightful bit of business that reinforces the bizarre nature of this twisted triangle. He has directed Mahoney to sit in a chair, tucking his leg under him as a young girl would. Pain is instant, and he promptly pops out of the chair in arthritic agony.

"It's my favorite moment in the show," Mahoney admitted with unabashed glee. "I know that's a flat-out laugh that I'm going to get so I really look forward to it every evening, sitting down like that and suddenly realizing that my bones just won't take it anymore."

The part does have its pitfalls, he said. "I'd seen the play about 12 years ago in Chicago — with Mike Nussbaum as the old man — and I always thought, 'Oh, I'd love to do that part one day. It looks a lot of fun.' The only difficult part was not going overboard with it, not making it too campy. I tried to make the character as real as possible."

No small achievement given the situation. Alec Guinness was originally announced to do the role in the movie version but bowed out at the last minute, giving the late Sydney Walker the role of his lifetime. Walker had done the part on tour. Barnard Hughes originated it Off-Broadway with Alec Baldwin and on Broadway with Timothy Hutton. A Steppenwolf staple from Chicago, Mahoney doesn't do a lot of theatre outside of The Second City, but, when he does, he can come away with a Tony (The House of Blue Leaves in 1986). His high-profile comes from 11 years of TV's "Frasier," and he's happy to find his two sons from that show working on the New York stage at the same time that he is: Kelsey Grammer in My Fair Lady and David Hyde Pierce in Curtains.

At the opening-night party which consumed the entire eighth floor of the Millennium Broadway Hotel, Tudyk was fielding a fair share of compliments on his fine performance and magnificent physique. "Yeah," he dirt-kicked, "I've gotten a couple of 'Who's your trainer?'"

His success in lightening the play's potentially heavy load is something he credits to director Sullivan. "He has such an easy way of directing. You just take it day by day. We took three or four days to read the play again and again and again to get an understanding of what we were saying and why we were saying it. With a new play, you do spend a lot of table work because you're changing things and you find where it's all happening. But this play was written and performed. We were just finding our ways into the characters."

Parisse is also quick to praise Sullivan for coaching her through her tightrope walk between young woman and old man. "Dan Sullivan is just amazing," she trilled. "What a wonderful journey to go on every night! Omigod! It's such fun, a real blast."

Mary-Louise Parker walked the walk quite well when she originated the role, winning a Theatre World Award and nominations for a Tony and a Drama Desk Award — but she lost her shot to do the film to Meg Ryan (a major disappointment she still refuses to discuss).

"What an incredible actress Mary-Louise is," gushed Parisse. "It's such a honor to follow her. I didn't see the movie, and I didn't see the original play so I came to it totally fresh."

Was her performance helped any by the fact that her leading man in the play and her leading man in real life (Paul Sparks) bear a remarkable resemblance to each other — certainly, enough to give casting directors ideas about brother acts? "I never thought of it myself," she admitted, "but, now that you pointed it out to me, I can see it."

Sparks was very much present and in her corner. He will open soon at Playwrights Horizons in a new play by Adam Rapp, Essential Self-Defense, co-starring Heather Goldenhersh and Guy Boyd. Rapp was likewise in attendance, no doubt checking out what a Pulitzer Prize passover looks like since he has had one of those in recent years.

The "Law and Order" folks were out in force, supporting Parisse — notably Sam Waterston and writer Warren Leight. A prisoner of his TV fame, Waterston would love to get back to the theatre. "I did Much Ado About Nothing a couple of years ago in the park with my daughter, Elizabeth," he said, gesturing to the young woman beside him. "Practically every year — except last year and this year — I've managed to do something."

Leight, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Side Man won a Best Play Tony for Roundabout, didn't linger long at the party with his wife, Karen Houser, director of research at The League of American Theatres. They have a month-old baby, Isabel Harper Leight.

He expects to have something to announce soon about his next play, James and Annie, but first "I'm finishing up the 'Law and Order' year, and then we'll see what's up."


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