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What's all the fuss about this "Kiss'?

What is the deal with Prelude to a Kiss? A few years ago on Broadway, with Timothy Hutton and Mary-Louise Parker in the leading roles, the romantic comedy was a hit and got a Tony nomination for best play. In an upcoming movie, Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan will play the newlyweds whose honeymoon takes a detour into the Twilight Zone.

Such success is puzzling. Craig Lucas' play, which recently opened at Florida Studio Theater, is a glib little trifle, and the honor it has reaped doesn't bode well for the commercial theater.

Perhaps FST doesn't do it justice. Lucas' play is artfully constructed, with overlapping lines and tightly wound small talk. In expert hands, it probably looks easy.

As directed by Scott Burkell, the cast's mastery of Prelude's dialogue is far from razor sharp, and the overall pacing of the play is much too slow. On opening night, the first act closed so indecisively that audience members took an embarrassingly long while to figure out that intermission was at hand and they should applaud.

No doubt the play is popular because its two main characters are recognizable and unthreatening to the audience. Yuppies can identify with them. Elders can soothe any anxiety they might have about the younger generation by basking in the glow of the attractive pair.

Eavesdropping at intermission and after the show at FST, the most common remark overheard was about how cute the actors were who played Peter and Rita.

Michael Lasswell plays Peter, and he is bare-chested much of the time, even though his character holds down a decidedly unsexy job as a microfiche librarian. As Rita, Paige Alenius looks terrific in tights. She's a bartender with aspirations to a career in graphic design.

In the beginning of the play, whose title comes from a Duke Ellington song, Peter and Rita meet at a party. They fall in love and get married two months later.

At the reception after the wedding ceremony, an old man shows up and asks to kiss the bride. As ethereal music swells up, and Rita and the interloper are bathed in golden light, the kiss is dutifully performed.

The post-kiss result: Rita and the old man exchange identities, with his soul inhabiting her person, and vice versa.

Soon enough, on their Jamaican honeymoon, Peter realizes that his wife is not herself. Rita chugs seltzer water instead of Molson beer, crankily dismisses her husband's concern about poverty in Jamaica, and calls him "puppy puppy."

The rest of Prelude depicts Peter's efforts to reverse that portentous kiss.

It's a clever scenario, but Lucas also invests it with a deeper meaning about the fleeting passage of life and the difficulty of really knowing another person.

Because the old man is terminally ill, and Rita speaks of premature death, some see an AIDS metaphor in Prelude. (Lucas wrote the screenplay of Longtime Companion, which is about AIDS.)

Bradford Wallace plays the old man in the manner of Mr. Chips, a fussy headmaster in a cloth cap. He's more interesting as Rita than Rita is as herself.

Douglas Jones and Yetta Levitt play Rita's parents as one-dimensional stock characters _ suburban nitwits.

Lawrence Golden, as Taylor, a smarmy co-worker of Peter's and his best man, delivers an amusing line. Before the wedding ceremony, as he and Peter look out at the guests gathered on Rita's parents' lawn, Taylor says:

"You see all those middle-aged guys down there in their checked pants and their wives in the flouncy dresses? They were all very hip once."

The set is strangely bare, and there's a mechanical section of the stage that clunks back and forth for scene changes. At one point, the movable stage almost tripped an inattentive actor.


Prelude to a Kiss

The play by Craig Lucas is at Florida Studio Theater through March 14; tickets are $12-$18; call 366-9796 in Sarasota.