While most of the Roundabout's middlebrow audience will likely leave the American Airlines Theater with a smile on their faces, some members will likely be aware that Daniel Sullivan's direction has smoothed out some of the play's sharper and rougher edges, especially in the meant-to-be-darker second act. And those who saw Mary-Louise Parker as Rita in the original Off-Broadway and Broadway productions (which doesn't, alas, include me) may well miss her particular brand of quirkiness.
Here, we get the talented and attractive Annie Parisse as the charmingly neurotic Rita, who hooks up with the essentially straightforward if slightly tongue-tied Peter (Alan Tudyk), a publishing manager, at a neighbor's party. Rita is a sort of an odd duck -- she claims to have not slept since she was 14 years old, briefly flirted with Communism, and is content being a bartender, rather than pursuing her dream of being a graphic designer. Yet, we -- and Peter -- are clearly supposed to find her completely irresistible rather than unbearably flaky.
Within two months, the pair is engaged; and shortly after, they're taking their wedding vows in the suburban backyard of Rita's parents (played by James Rebhorn and the invaluable Robin Bartlett). At the reception, Rita -- who barely made it through the ceremony without collapsing -- is kissed by an old man no one knows (John Mahoney). The next minute -- spoiler ahead -- the two have magically exchanged souls and bodies, a fact Peter finally figures out after Rita's behavior changes drastically on their honeymoon in Jamaica.
Having been content to settle for bearable lightness in the first act, Lucas sets up real conflict and pathos in the second act. Not only does the possibility exist that the made-for-each-other pair may never physically reunite, but the playwright throws in the revelation that the old man has perhaps a year to live. Yet, in Sullivan's production, there seems to be little at stake, as if the happy ending for Peter and Rita is a foregone conclusion, and the old man's demise little to be worried about.
Fortunately, Mahoney, returning to the New York stage for the first time in 15 years, manages to bring some of the needed gravitas to the production, as well as being the one performer who truly touches the heart. He seems a little too vital for the role, however, even in the earliest scenes when he's supposed to be quite frail.
Parisse has some enchanting moments, but maybe it's the fact that she spent two years as a tough DA on Law & Order that makes her seem altogether too grounded to be completely believable as the fear-stricken Rita. She also goes a tad overboard in her old-man mannerisms; you wonder why Peter doesn't rush her to an exorcist on day one of their honeymoon.
Tudyk has perhaps the toughest assignment -- he's onstage throughout the entire two-hour play -- and the handsome actor handles his task with sweetness, charm, and honesty. The supporting ensemble -- save for the hilarious Bartlett -- isn't given much opportunity to stand out; nor do they seize what few chances they have.
As is often the case at the Roundabout, the show's creative team stands out. Santo Loquasto's flexible, sliding set smartly encompasses the many variety of locales; Jane Greenwood's costume design is simple if effective; and Donald Holder does his customarily excellent work with lighting.
Some have suggested that the switched-body development is a metaphor for gay couples where one member had AIDS and aged rapidly. Perhaps that's true, but Lucas' primary message is that we should all enjoy the lives we have for as long as we have them. In that vein, there are worse -- and better -- ways to spend two hours than watching this enjoyable if imperfect Prelude to a Kiss.