Theatre Review: ‘Prelude to a Kiss’ by Arts Collective at HCC

Jon Kevin Lazarus (Peter), Keri Eastridge (Rita), Bill Stanley (Old Man). Photo by Nate Pesce.

Jon Kevin Lazarus (Peter), Keri Eastridge (Rita), Bill Stanley (Old Man).
Photo by Nate Pesce.

Howard Community College’s Arts Collective’s production of Prelude to a Kiss treats an absurd premise with sensitivity, shedding light on the themes of love and loss. The story concerns two young neurotics, Rita and Peter. On the day of their wedding, a strange old man asks to kiss the bride— causing his and Rita’s souls to swap bodies. On one level, the play explores the idea that marriage changes a person, not always for the better. On a deeper level, as was playwright Craig Lucas’ intention, the story is an allegory for the AIDS epidemic. Rita’s physiology changes in an instant, and the change heralds tragic consequences if her condition remains uncured.

The play spends much of the first act establishing Rita and Peter’s relationship. The pacing is problematic since Rita and Peter are such a well-matched pair that conflict rarely arises. Rita (Keri Eastridge) and Peter (Jon Kevin Lazarus) interact with palpable chemistry, but the dialogue leads them in and out of minor intellectual disagreements that do little to advance the plot. These discussions resurface later in the second act, when Peter begins to fact-check Rita’s memory, but many of the details feel like red herrings (or worse, pure exposition).

 …the evening culminates in a rewarding experience…

As written, the character of Rita borders on cliché. She is a twenty-something manic pixie dream girl, a sort-of-kind-of communist who seduces Peter by waxing lyrical about Freud. Keri Eastridge makes her realistic and relatable, showing more frustration than pride in her own quirks. Peter is a real Disney prince of a man, who finds Rita’s eccentricities more endearing than off-putting. Jon Kevin Lazarus lends the character a Hamlet-like quality, an unspoken questing of every situation, even though the dialogue wants him to be more passive. Once the fateful soul-swap occurs, the humor begins to pick up. Eastridge’s transformation from the anxious, sarcastic Rita into the devil-may-care Old Man delivers laughs. Lazarus counters Rita’s humor with Peter’s suspicion, providing a juxtaposition of emotions previously absent from the story.

The truly memorable moments of the play come near the very end. Peter brings the real Rita— still in the body of the Old Man (played by Bill Stanley)— back to her apartment, and the two live out the life of an old married couple. This is the first time you get a real sense of their unrequited longing for one another. There is a heart wrenching moment when Peter, who tries to avoid intimate physical contact with the altered Rita, tucks her into bed and quietly climbs in beside her.

Jon Kevin Lazarus (Peter) and Keri Eastridge (Rita). Photo by Nate Pesce.

Jon Kevin Lazarus (Peter) and Keri Eastridge (Rita).
Photo by Nate Pesce.

Erin Adams gives a notable performance as Peter’s friend Taylor, prancing around the stage in high heels and sunglasses like a suburban Cruella De Vil. Ilene Chambers plays Rita’s yuppie mother with grace in her restrained emotion.

If the early scenes move too slowly for your taste, the elegant design elements will provide ample stimulation of the senses. A versatile, three-tiered set by Terry Cobb is warm and complex, with just enough detail to be both lifelike and theatrical. Cobb also did the video design which features multiple hanging panels of projection screens that hint at location changes. (I often find the use of projections cringe-worthy, but in this case, the effect is evocative and adds depth to the set.) Nick Staigerwald pays attention to detail in his costume design. Rita’s costumes, in particular, have an underlying consistency with the content of the story. She dresses in vintage-inspired outfits, so it makes an odd sort of sense that she transforms into a person from a bygone era. Ashanti Cooper rounds out the design team with a sound design that expands the space with instrumental music and incidental sound effects by Dave Harton. Songs with vocals occasionally distract from the onstage action, but always match the emotional content.

Arts Collective bills Prelude as a romantic comedy, but the play is more moody than laugh-a-minute funny. Poignant moments brim with sentiment, but director Darius K. McKeiver takes a subtle approach and steers the production clear of melodrama. In spite of a slow beginning, the evening culminates in a rewarding experience in the second act.

Running time: Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

Advisory: Includes mature themes and subject matter.

Prelude to a Kiss runs through May 19, 2013 at the Studio Theatre at the Horowitz Center, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 518-1500 or click here.