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

By Harry Haun
March 12, 2007

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."

Ean Sheehy, who has starred in several Leight plays, is slowly infiltrating the series. "I just wrote him another part," Leight said. "We've used him a few times on 'Law and Order' he's Joshua Simmons, the forensic accountant so I just wrote him another little scene where he gets to come in and explain the Anna Nicole Smith family fortune."

At Sullivan's table were a couple of women he directed in a 2005 play by Pulitzer Prize-winning Donald Margulies, Brooklyn Boy Polly Draper and Ari Graynor.

Draper has been spinning a lot of plates of late and putting acting on the back-burner: "I have produced, written and directed a television series starring my entire family except me," she said. "The Naked Brothers Band" was first an independent mockumentary film in 2005, and now it is a hit Nickelodean television series. Her sons Nat, 12, and Alex, 9 comprise the title role(s), and occasionally Dad (jazz bandleader Michael Wolf). The boys, even if Mom says so herself, "are brilliant musicians and they've written all these amazing songs. So I haven't had a chance to do much acting. I'm doing a Lifetime movie right now. It's called 'Too Young to Marry' and, believe me, it's not about me."

"Again," her husband jokingly injects from the sidelines. "'Too Young to Marry Again.'"

Another all-over-the-place multi-tasker in attendance was Austin Pendleton. Is he writing, directing or acting these days? "Teaching, primarily at HB Studios," he replied.

Sullivan's next assignment will be Shakespeare steering Hamish Linklater through Hamlet at South Coast Rep. "We start rehearsing in mid-April, and it will open June 1."

Then, Seattle Rep's former artistic director begins a year as Manhattan Theatre Club's artistic director while Lynne Meadow gets some well-earned R&R. "My time is from August to August so I don't officially start until several months. It just works out most the work is happening now because Lynne and I are putting together a season for next year.

"We have talked for a while how absolutely necessary it is for her to take a sabbatical. This is just one of the ways to make it happen. I took a sabbatical in Seattle, and I didn't really plan it out so the year went by very quickly, and, at the end of it, I thought, 'I need another year. Now, I know what I want to do.' I'm happy to be doing this for Lynne."

The three leads pretty much dominate Prelude, but there's some good sideline support from the parents of the bride, Robin Bartlett (who originated the kooky lead in the play version of Lucas' Reckless) and James Rebhorn. It was not their first marriage, he noted: "Robin and I were married back in 1989 at La Jolla in a play called Nebraska by Keith Reddin so this is a happy reunion for us after a long separation. And I love this play."

Roundabout rounded up a cast of 13 for Prelude, and some name-brand actors among them. Macintyre Dixon has a bit as the minister officiating at the wedding plus 'I'm understudying John Mahoney so that's a nice touch. That's mainly why I'm doing it.

Numbered among the wedding guests is John Rothman, more than a tad overqualified for the assignment but he's squeezing a movie in at the same time. "I'm doing Griffin Dunne's movie, 'Accidental Husband,' with Uma Thurman. It's shooting at the Conde Nast building on Saturday, and they're giving me permission not to be in the curtain call so I can finish my part in the play and get over to the set and do my part in the movie."

Rothman was among the doomed plane passengers in "United 93," which The New York Film Critics considered the Best Picture of 2006. "It was one of the great experiences of my life," he said of the filming. "We had a great director [Paul Greengrass], and the fact he was nominated for an Oscar was very good because it will encourage people to see it. It's a very hard movie to see and to do for all these New York actors. Most of them theatre actors who could sustain an improvisation. The call sheet would say, 'Hijacking to crash.' And we had to do that several times a day. It's the hardest job I ever, ever had."

Director Taylor Hackford went stag to the play and party, sans his lately much-celebrated wife the Best Actress of 2006, regardless of what poll you read ("The Queen"-ly Helen Mirren). He's preparing a career switch from film to theatre with a Broadway musical based on a 1992 Steve Martin movie about a traveling evangelist conman, "Leap of Faith." "I'm doing a reading in the next two weeks here," he said, "and Raul Esparza is doing the Steve Martin role." Glenn (A Class Act) Slater, whom Alan Menken tapped to write the new songs for The Little Mermaid, will do lyrics to Menken's music and co-write the book with Janus Cercone, who wrote the original screenplay.

Now that LoveMusik is in rehearsal readying for its May opening at the Biltmore with Donna Murphy and Michael Cerveris as Lotte Leyna and Kurt Weill, titian-haired producer Chase Mishkin said she can focus on things in development. Like: another new musical, this by Charles Leiphart (book and lyrics) and Billy Goldstein (music), Lady on a Carousel, about some nerdy kids who go to Bronx Science High School."

Other first-nighters included the directors of Grey Gardens (Michael Greif), Spring Awakening (Michael Mayer) and I Am My Own Wife (Moises Kaufman, on the brink of A Big Announcement), Dana Ivey, The Public's Oskar Eustis, The WPA's "illegally blond" Kyle Renick, two-time Tony-winning costumer Martin Pakledinaz (praising the generosity of his Pirate Queen bosses and the wonders that choreographer Graciela Daniele and writer Richard Maltby Jr. have brought to that project), Simon Jones (bound for the Cherry Lane in Phallacy, a "play by the man who invented The Pill"), Cynthia Nixon (hinting about theatre in the near future, and, "of course, that 'Sex and the City' movie on the horizon"), dramatic soprano Lauren Flanigan (who did Robert Altman's opera in Chicago, A Wedding, and his recent memorial service) and, last but not least, Walter Charles (arriving from The Apple Tree, now finishing up its Studio 54 run).