I believe it was the great Irish playwright and staunch socialist George Bernard Shaw who, late in the game and long in the tooth, suggested that the real problem with human beings is that we simply don’t live long enough. By the time we have gained enough experience and wisdom to properly engage our existence, we croak. Shaw figured that a decent lifespan for a person was 500 years or so.
The old saw that youth is wasted on the young is but one of the prickly ideas enriching the bittersweet romantic comedy Prelude to a Kiss, currently on stage at Very Little Theatre under the direction of Darlene Rhoden. This Pulitzer-nominated 1988 play, written by Craig Lucas, is a smart, witty and surprisingly timely meditation on life’s deepest issues — love, death and time itself — wrapped in the palatable trappings of a classic rom-com, with a surreal twist.
The outward trappings of the story are familiar as all get-out: Peter (David Arnold), a strait-laced archivist at a publishing firm for scientific journals, meets Rita (Jesselyn Perkins) at a party. Rita is a classic New York type: a free-spirited part-time bartender who aspires to be a graphic designer and not-so-secretly harbors a deep dread about this broken world and her place in it. Their mutual awkwardness is soon overcome, and a whirlwind romance ensues.
Before we know it, we’re at Peter and Rita’s wedding, presided over by a charismatic minister (Quinn Alexander Vasbinder, in one of several roles) and attended by Rita’s bumbling but loving parents (Tere Tronson and David Smith). Also in attendance is a mysterious Old Man (Jonas Israel), who shuffles up to the couple with an excess of sentimentality, overcome by their youthful beauty. He asks to kiss the bride, and in doing so the two exchange souls.
Chaos ensues, as Rita, now inhabiting the Old Man’s old body, flees the scene in confusion, and the Old Man in Rita’s body heads with Peter for a honeymoon in Jamaica.
The body swap is perennial comedic fare, typically mined for slapstick and absurd reversals in the desperate quest by both parties involved to swap back. Lucas, however, employs this magical plot twist to explore more serious existential stuff; his intentions are less supernatural than Kafkaesque, with a refreshing dose of very adult humor. For instance, one of the heady questions this play asks is: Should your partner suddenly show up in the decrepit body of a person opposite your sexual orientation, would you still, you know, love them, with all that entails?
And beneath such frank, and frankly funny, considerations lie even more subterranean issues that grant the play its nervy and invigorating zing. On their honeymoon, “Rita” — now taken over by a dying Old Man — confronts Peter with a new lease on life, leaving her fears behind in a buoyant attitude of fuck-it, let’s enjoy the moment. That this new Rita, full of joie de vivre, sends Peter into a funk is one of the play’s revealing truths about the nature of love and identity.
Prelude to a Kiss is tart medicine coated in sweetness, and it’s just the right amount of darkness and light for these times. Upon the play’s debut, it was assumed that the story was in part a metaphor for the ravages of AIDS, and certainly that bears out poignantly. But it is a testament to the play’s enduring power that the passage of time and the tumultuous intrusions of recent history have done nothing to diminish its core concerns, which are universal and inescapable: unconditional commitment, acceptance against the odds, the paralysis of youth, the regrets of old age — and their overcoming.
VLT’s production is excellent. Rhoden’s direction is airy and unobtrusive, allowing the edgy candor and mature, often bawdy humor of Lucas’ script room to breathe. The cast, which also includes Robin Hart (Taylor), Hazel Diana Robin (Aunt Dorothy), Martin Brown (Uncle Fred) and Leslie Murray as the Old Man’s daughter Leah, is well-attuned to the material.
In these days of divisiveness and angst, ripe with questions about gender fluidity, identity politics and existential dread, Prelude to a Kiss is a smart and surprising choice. It seems to address our confusion with a gentle earnestness and nudging humor that is no less grounding for the hard challenges it poses.
Prelude to a Kiss is at Very Little Theatre through April 2; info and tickets at TheVLT.com or 541-344-7751.